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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Tenderness of Wolves

My interest in this novel was heighted by two outside pieces of information: that the author was a screenwriter and that she had never been to the area north of Georgian Bay where the novel is set (and had been criticized for it). The first interested me because the novel is “cinematic” and written in scenes—and moves forward at a compelling pace; the second, because I’ve been decrying the place that research has assumed in novel writing these days and completely accept the author’s counter that this is, after all, a work of the imagination. The setting is tangible and immediate; whether it is “real” doesn’t matter as far as I can tell.

The Tenderness of Wolves is essentially a mystery which takes place 1860s Ontario, on Georgian Bay, a large bay to the northeast of Lake Huron. The action takes place in Caulfield on Dove River, a small settlement with no buildings over 13 years old, in a Norwegian religious colony and on a trading post of the Hudson Bay Company—and in the snow-covered plains and forests lying between. A trader and ex-Company man is murdered in his house on the edge of Dove River and found by a neighboring farmer’s wife. The plot is complex with many characters and basically follows the actions of those who want to find out who murdered Laurent Jammet. The only first person voice is that of Mrs. Ross, who woman who discovers the body and whose son is suspected of the murder, but most of the novel it not first person narration.

The structure is interesting. There are four main sections, corresponding to the different settings and to the stages in the investigation. Within each section are subsections, using focusing on different characters. Mrs. Ross actually narrates the sections where she’s the main focus, but you see her from the outside when she appears in the other sections. The other sections use a sort of Jamesian center of consciousness, with the narrator getting into the head of another character. One can easily see the influence of film.

It’s a complex plot with lots of characters and no real interest in the man who was killed except that the wrong persons are being accused. I found this a page turner until maybe two-thirds of the way through where it suddenly occurred to me I didn’t really care about any of the characters. Nor did I care who killed the trapper since it was clear it wasn’t the two sympathetic characters who were accused. Nor were they in any real danger of punishment for a crime they didn't commit.

The role of “The Company” that controlled the fur trade in British North America, in the novel and in the community, is interesting and Company men are generally bad guys, except Moody who “figures it out” during the course of the novel. But that theme is generally ancillary and not really developed. (I was astounded when I first went shopping in Calgary years ago to find the main department store, referred to by initiates as “the Bay”, was that same company which Wikipedia describes as the “oldest commercial corporation in North America”.

My assessment of this novel: the structure is near perfect, the setting is powerful, the plot is OK, and the characters are skillfully imagined but ultimately bloodless. Mrs. Ross, for example, narrates bits of her past in an insane asylum where she evidently was the favorite of a nutty doctor (made me think of the main character in Atwood’s Alias Grace) but the background generates questions that are never answered. That’s true with other characters as well. Perhaps the difference is that the characterization in film, which of necessity relies on snippets, isn’t really enough for a really effective novel.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Lone Star Nation by H. W. Brands

This book by Brands has a great deal in common with the one I read on California a few months ago. The politics of admitting both Texas and California to the Union became a battleground for the slavery issue, as did, I presume, the political history of every other state admitted in the decades before the Civil War. Texas and California were just bigger and destined to be influential. I was disappointed when the California book left the gold rush—which was my primary interest in reading it—and got into the politics of slavery, but I ended up interested enough to think those decades before the Civil War were a lot more interesting than I’d assumed.

Lone Star Nation doesn’t get to the slavery issue until the end, after Texas won its independence and sought to join the Union. Then former president John Quincy Adams led the opposition to Texas statehood on the grounds that it would be a backward stop to admit such a big state as a slave state. Adams was also offended, on moral grounds, that Texas had admitted slave owners with their slaves—illegally—even as a part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. (Mexico had outlawed slavery in the 1820s.) I had not known that the last public act of Sam Houston, then governor of the state of Texas, was to refuse to sign the papers officially transferring Texas to the Confederacy. He resigned and died before the Civil War was over and slavery defeated and the Union restored.

Brands’ story is a heroic one—rag-tag settlers, mostly from the US, who tried to get along as a state of Mexico but failed. Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Texas, tried very hard to make Texas work as a Mexican state and before joining those agitating for complete independence from Mexico had advocated Texas statehood within Mexico separate from Coahuila. At one point he spent a year in Mexico City trying to move the government on behalf of Texas and when he returned in a last ditch effort to negotiate a deal with Mexico, he was imprisoned as the traitor he wasn’t at the time—but would become.

The story of defeat and death at the Alamo and Goliad were familiar from an earlier read; Houston’s victory at San Jacinto is familiar because I’ve visited the battlefield and memorial many times and knew at least the barebones of the story. I enjoyed reading about the heroics of men who had been before only the names of downtown streets.

Brands perpetrates the legend of ragtag and fiercely independent Texans. Houston’s army had no discipline at all, though Houston was trained under Andrew Jackson and knew something about military discipline. He wanted to fight a defensive war with Santa Anna’s superior forces (and he had ordered the abandonment and destruction of the Alamo), but his men made their own decisions, first to defend the Alamo and then forcing his hand at San Jacinto.

One scene I had not known about though was the mass exodus of the civilian population that spring of war. Following the defeats at the Alamo and Goliad, settlers—often just wives and children—sought to leave, bunched up on the roads, abandoning goods and vehicles that couldn’t deal with the roads and piling up trying to cross first the flood-swollen Trinity and then the Sabine. Knowing something of “evacuation” from recent hurricanes I was duly horrified at their predicament.

I didn’t grew up in Texas but one thing I’ve learned from living here is that Texas is proud of being the only state that was once an independent nation, but that’s really twisting history. The years after victory at San Jacinto which ended the fighting and sent the army back to Mexico were years of trying to get adopted by the American union and treating with other countries (particularly Britain) in case that did not work out. And while Santa Anna, the President when he led the Mexican army to Texas, but soon deposed when he was captured, was willing to recognize Texas independence, official Mexico was not. The tensions led the Mexican war which finally paved the way for Mexico to recognize the annexation of Texas to the United States as well as to cede California and New Mexico. That’s the next period I need to read up on….

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury

When I first picked this one up I was a bit bored by the vaguely humorous, tongue-in-cheek , but way out-of-date travelog about a thinly disguised Eastern European Communist capital named Slaka (probably Prague) during the Cold War. But I perked up when Bradbury introduced his hero, a biddable English linguist from a minor university named Angus Petworth. Petworth is going on a one of many cultural exchange trips he has made with the British Council, only this time to a country with no British Council office to supervise his trip in place. Many of the sources of humor in this book are satiric and focused on stereotypes of communist satellites, but on top of that Petworth is funny all by himself and redeems the novel for a contemporary reader unfamiliar (or tired of) Communist stereotypes.

The sources of humor are many:

  • The linguistic battles and in-jokes of the 70ies and 80ies that surround Petworth’s professional life: “a rich international sub-language—he would call it an idiolect—composed of many fascinating terms, like idiolect, and sociolect, langue and parole, signifier and signified, Chomsky and Saussure, Barthes and Derrida, not the sort of words you say to everybody, but which put [Petworth] immediately in touch with the vast community of those of his own sub-group…”
  • The stereotypical “types” in Slaka: the heavies, dissidents, the professors trying to walk a thin line and those trying to convert the visitor to Marxism. Those extolling the virtues of the socialist state and those trying to impress with their experience of the West.
  • The language itself. Much of the text is monologue (or comic dialogue with Petworth supplying the straight lines) in what most will recognize as the typically mangled syntax associated with Eastern Europeans. In addition, the country itself is having a language crisis and the spelling of words changes overnight, causing the name of the official newspaper as well as words on prominent signs to change overnight. In fact, the changing words signal changes in regime, which of course the politically innocent Petworth (dubbed as is “not a character in the world historical sense”) doesn’t recognize.
  • A certain reflexiveness, an awareness on the part of the narrator and of Petworth that the characters in the story are characters in a story.
  • The recognizable appurtenances of Communist countries: the listeners (no unemployment because so many are employed spying on others), the bureaucracy, the abbreviated and capitalized names of offices and programs (COSMOPLOT, HOGPo) to say nothing of "The Park of Brotherhood and Friendship with the Russian Peoples" and the portraits of Lenin and Marx and Breshnov alongside the local leaders.
  • Petworth’s name: he is called Petwit, Petwurt, Pitvit (perilously close to nitwit), Petwet, and even Pervert.
  • Other names: Professor Rom Rom, Mr. Plitplov, Steadiman (the husband and wife together are called Steadimen). The hard currency store is Wicwok.
  • The woman who chase Petworth: the magical realist novelist named Katya Princip for whom he falls, the wife of the English Cultural attaché named Budgie Steadiman, his official guide Marisja Lubijova. Petworth as "lover" and especially as "loved and desired" is hilarious.
  • Petworth’s lectures: One is on the difference between “I haven’t got” and “I don’t have” in English….
  • A certain “Homeric ring” when epithets are applied to repeated themes, like “the dark wife” for Petworth’s wife back home in England. Recurring minor themes like the whispers of “do you want to change money” all travelers are warned against.
  • Echoes of Western literary favorites: “in the room professors come and go talking of TS Eliot”, “But that was in another country and the wench now has tenure”, ”A line of short stout lady professors sit in the front row, thinking Marxist thoughts and knitting”.

Those who get the academic humor and those who remember the rigmarole of visiting a Communist country will probably enjoy this book more than others. As well those who appreciate writing that sacrifices anything for wit.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell

One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. It’s about the Haitian Revolution—this is the first volume. There are multiple points of view among the white and black people of Haiti. A French doctor comes to Haiti to visit a sister who’s married a Haitian planter and about whom he’s concerned. Dr. Hébert, who becomes involved with a mulatto woman and has a child with her, who’s captured by the rebels and learns about medicinal herbs from Toussaint L’Overature, is the “touchstone” character, the one whose sensibilities are most like those of today’s readers. It was a brilliant decision on Bell’s part to have a white man who was not a Haitian colonial (with economic interests in plantations and slave labor) as an observer/participant, one who is of the same class as the planters (without their interests) but is able to accept human beings on their own merits. I understand he continues through the next two volumes of the trilogy. There is also third person narration that focuses on different characters, including Toussaint who is already old by Haitian slave standards, a Christian, and from a well-run plantation where slaves were not grossly mistreated. There’s some first person narrative by an African named Riau who remembers his homeland (Toussaint was born into slavery in Haiti) and who moves between Toussaint’s group and some more militant and violent groups. The first person narrative is Bell’s attempt, largely successful, to “get inside the head” of the rebels, in the form of an individual who’s intelligent enough to have some insight into the choices the rebels have.

Bell provides ample historical material for the reader to understand the context of the only successful black revolution. It takes place during the unsettled period following the French Revolution. There existed in Haiti at the time not only the same groups of whites as were in the US during slavery (the upper class, who owned land and for whom the institution of slavery is critical, and the middle class whites, who were traders and shopkeepers and had other jobs and professions and whose wealth did not derive from the land), but political groups as well: those conservatives who supported the king (largely the plantation-owning class) as well as various revolutionary supporters. So to some extent French politics played out in Haiti. There was one governing official who deported those Frenchmen who disagreed with him back to France as traitors, and in some cases to the guillotine. There were also black rebels who were loyal to the king.

There’s a year-by-year summary of historical events in an appendix—needed since most readers in English are not very familiar with Haitian history. There’s also an excellent glossary that allows Bell to use French and Creole words in the text because all of them are explained in the glossary. That allows him to initiate the reader into the Voodoo religion and Haitian traditions among whites, Creoles, mulattoes and blacks) as they touch on the events in the novel. It’s extraordinary how successful he is leading readers to understand the multiple points of view. Neither side is monolithic in its interests and values and both the rebels and the defenders are complicated and changing coalitions of individuals and groups with various motivations.

Bell’s narrative also moves back and forth in time, with the novel actually beginning as Toussaint is moved to a secure prison in France in 1802. The events, though, of this first volume mainly take place between 1791 and 1793.

I already have the second volume…

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes will interest students of American history since WWII, especially those who thrived on cold war spy novels (though when I think about it the best spy novels focused on the British Secret Service more than on the CIA). To appreciate what Weiner has to say, it helps to know the basics about the overthrow of governments in Iran and Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U2 incident, the Kennedy assassination and the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, Iran Contra, Noriega in Panama, the kidnapping and bombing of Americans in Lebanon, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan, Mogadishu, the bombing of the Cole, the African embassy bombings, the bombing of the aspirin plant in Sudan, American support of the Baath party in Iraq and of course 9/11.

Weiner’s thesis is that even the most successful US covert operations were riddled with failures and resulted in foreign policy failures that would haunt us for generations. The overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossedegh in Iran in 1953 has long been considered one of the CIA’s success stories though there is every reason to think it lead to an Islamic revolution and motivated the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran to say nothing of poisons relations with Iran today.

Weiner takes advantage of documents available through the Freedom of Information Act and other sources to look at the CIA from the inside. He reveals how the CIA lied to successive presidents and also how presidents lied to the CIA—and how the CIA covered up its failures in the name of national security. He identifies the villains and a few heroes of the CIA. He profiles all the directors since Wild Bill Donovan first organized covert operations in WWII with the OSS.

Weiner examines attempts to ensure oversight of the CIA and explains why its goals were never realized. He lays bare the issue of whether a secret intelligence service is even possible in a democracy. His conclusion is that the CIA is and has always been incompetent.

With as much bad news and as many exposes as Weiner’s book contains one can’t help but wonder if it’s not a one sided view. Michael Beschloss, reviewing the book in The New York Times review calls it an “angry book” and a “deeply researched” not one that was wrong. He also said, and I have to agree, that the goal of Weiner’s book is not to destroy the CIA as have past exposes, but to warn the United States that “this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world.”