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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens

I love George Orwell, but I haven’t read 1984 and Animal Farm since I was 17—the summer before college—and I haven’t read the rest of his fiction at all. But I love the nonfiction. I taught “Shooting and Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” to countless freshman and not only memorized important passages, but stored away their main ideas, about anti-colonialism and about deliberate obfuscation, among those very most important ideas to me. I recently read Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia and was convinced that Orwell matters significantly. So this book was a natural for me.

Hitchens’ writing and his arguments are sophisticated. I read this one like a text at school, looking up relevant stuff, marking passages, writing in the margins. It’s a little book. Hitchen’s goal was not a complete analysis of Orwell so much a plea to take this guy seriously, don’t let this 20th century writer fade away as relevant only to his own time (1903-1950—Orwell died of TB and he might have been saved had he been able to get the appropriate antibiotic from the US in the immediate post-war period).

Hitchens seems to think Orwell’s anti-colonial stance his most significant since that’s the first concept he tackles. So do I. I’m positive that “Shooting an Elephant”, which I read first in a Freshman English class myself, colored my view of colonialism, arguments about postcolonial literature, and about the third world generally. Before reading this book I’d have said my own anti-colonial bent was learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa; now I’d say the fire was probably lit by Orwell and that was a huge part of my motivation to join the Peace Corps in the first place.

Hitchens goes on to analyze how both the left and the right have used and abused Orwell as well as his ideas about America, “Englishness”, feminism, and anti-Communism. He typically deals not only with Orwell’s relationship with the ideas but how proponents of those ideas deal with Orwell. Finally he analyzes the fiction, convincing me to reread 1984 if not to read all the fiction. He even touches on Orwell and post-modernism in a chapter that not only rescues Orwell from the post-modernists, but causes me embarrassment at my initial enthusiasm for post-modernist analysis of literature and validates my current views that it’s just as well the academic world is getting over that craze.

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

Here’s a first novel from a writer with lots of promise. Writing is good and it’s a page turner—I read three quarters of it in the first sitting. And it deals with non-trivial issues such as the capacity of just about all of us for violence, neglect and betrayal.

Events are seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old narrator, Alice Winston, living on a horse farm in the West. As the novel opens, Alice’s father has just decided to move their horses out and rent stalls to rich horse owners—the stable has never been a going concern and is now in danger of going under. Alice’s sister, Nona, recently left high school and her winning reputation on the horse show circuit to get married. Alice’s mother, a former horse show star, never leaves her room. She looks wasted and thin, takes no interest in the stables or her family, and hasn’t done so since Alice was born. Alice interacts with her primarily through the meals she brings to her room, leaving as soon as she possibly can. Then there’s Sheila, a rich but not particularly talented girl Alice’s age, who has begun to take riding lessons from the father. The father has also sold Yellow Cap, the horse Nona rode to so many blue ribbons, to Sheila. He’s hoping Sheila, however unpromising, will turn into another Nona—and that her rich friends will follow her to the Winston stables. In addition, a coterie of idle rich women (“the Catfish”) hangs around the barn every afternoon, making frivolous demands for their horses, riding occasionally, but mostly gossiping and drinking out of paper cups.

By the way, Alice’s talents as a rider have already been tested and found wanting—her father assumes she should do a huge share of the dirty work at the farm—plus a good deal of cooking and dealing with her mother, but doesn’t count on her to restore the stable’s reputation. Alice misses Nona who was surrogate mother as well as confidant. Screwed up as is her home life, her life at school is no better. She’s unpopular and affects not to care, but when a young girl drowns in an irrigation canal, Alice claims to have been close to her, in an effort to gain some friends herself. When she meets the English teacher who was seen crying at Polly’s funeral, Alice calls him up and passes herself off as Polly’s best friend—hiding in Nona’s closet with her pink telephone—and starts a telephone relationship that threatens to turn into a dangerous liaison, one the teacher seems too irresponsible to handle.

Quite a burden for a 12-year old girl. What follows is a tale of love and betrayal, secrets and revelations, and failures great and small—all of which Alice is left to process pretty much on her own. The grandparents visit and succeed in getting the mother out of bed and participating in life—for awhile—as well as fixing the air-conditioning and moving the stable’s business forward. Nona and her husband come back, bringing secrets and contradictions, but coaching Sheila more successfully than did the father. The father breaks his leg and falls in love with one of the Catfish who finally pays enough attention to Alice to notice that she’s outgrown her clothes. Two episodes of cruelty to horses, one a revelation about the past and one painfully reported in the present are crucial to the plot, but don’t really bear the burden they’re asked to.

I wouldn’t call the novel a complete success. There are too many characters that carry a central role, leaving weak spots when they aren’t handled perfectly. The mother is pretty unbelievable. Supposedly she gave it all up after witnessing the first episode of cruelty, but that she’s been in her bedroom, physically thin and mentally spacey for 12 years is a stretch. The phone relationship with the teacher is wound up suddenly and unsatisfactorily. Still the characters, even the minor ones, are for the most part memorably drawn. The plot is complex, but works thematically if it is not entirely successful dramatically. The central issue of the novel—the capacity of humans to love and still betray—is handled well, though only one incident—that where Alice regrets hurting Sheila with tales of her father’s infidelity—really tells much about how Alice will live the rest of her life.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Aditchie

I seem really into African novels this summer and I loved this one. I was really impressed with Adichie's Purple Hibiscus when I read it but somehow thought this one had been less well received and I expected less. I got more. I heard the author read from the book a couple of months ago and was struck by how the houseboy coming to take up his job with a university professor was impressed with the city. “He had never seen anything like the streets…so smooth and tarred that he itched to lay his cheek down on them”. It’s that kind of detail that draws one into an unfamiliar milieu.

The story is that of twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, who don’t look alike at all, Olanna, the beautiful one, and Kainene, very tall, very black, elegant and sophisticated but not beautiful. They grow up in relative luxury, with upper middle class parents in Lagos living more or less like Europeans. Each in her own way is committed, though, to being African. Olanna goes to live with “the revolutionary” Odengibo, a professor of mathematics. Kainene goes to Port Harcourt (center of the oil industry) to run her father’s business. She becomes involved with, Richard, an Englishman at first interested in Igbo art, who loves her completely and identifies with the Igbo. The houseboy, Ugwu, also a main character, very young when he comes to work for Odengibo (who calls him “my good man”) goes to school and grows up to write about the war.

The structure of the novel is interesting. There are four parts: two labeled “early Sixties” and two labeled “late Sixties”—i.e., the time of the Biafran War, but they are not chronological. The first section is the first “early” section and it’s followed by the first “late” section. That second section deals with a rift between the two sisters and their men which the reader does not read about until the third section which goes back to the early Sixties. Somewhat of a risk on the author’s part, but one that’s quite successful.

The novel is about betrayal, the sexual betrayal that rents families and the cultural betrayal that pits one ethnic group against another, which are brought together near the end of the novel when Kainene says, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” The novel is extraordinarily successful at bringing together personal and national betrayal and tragedy. The daughters of “an important man” (who leaves Nigeria for London at the first whiff of war) experience progressive hardship and loss: friends and relatives die, a wedding reception is bombed, housing is reduced to one room in what used to be a primary school, kwashiorkor—the malnutrition that turns children’s skin yellow and bellies huge—affects all the children, everyone is starving. Ugwu, grown into an indispensible family member who helps Olanna teach in an informal school held outside, is hijacked into the army and severely wounded.

It isn’t hard to identify with the Igbo who, after jealousy unleases deadly attacks on all Igbo outside of “Igboland”, fight back by declaring the independence of the Republic of Biafra. The rhetoric—and a remarkable amount of behavior—is humane, democratic, idealistic. The tragedy is that the West sides with Nigeria (the artificial boundaries of which they are responsible for). Hindsight—and Real Politik—suggest that Biafra would have had to be strong indeed to have got away with the entire oil-producing area of Nigeria. Only a few third world countries recognize the new republic; the West sides with Nigeria and allows their attempt to starve Biafra into submission. Richard writes the Biafran point of view for the Western press and it’s his job to host the Western reporters; he finds their bias disgusting: “One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person”.

I liked the characters and the human drama of this novel. As an historical novel, it resurrects a forgotten conflict that presages many others to follow in Africa—Rwanda and certainly Darfur. I think it’s an important book. The title, by the way, refers to the symbol of the rising sun on the Biafran flag.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I hated the book. I'll grant the author has a talent for story telling and for creating characters, but for this one I can only assume that he made a list of all the horrible things that could happen to a female in Afghanistan and then outlined a novel to include every one of them. It feels like propaganda to me. I've read personal accounts by Afghani women where the story is what happened to them. That's honest. I've read articles about woman under the Taliban with some egregious examples. That's honest. But this novel is dishonest. It takes advantages of people's desire to read about atrocity after atrocity and it assumes that readers in English are so uninformed about Afghanistan that they can't get information except when it's also “entertainment”.

It strikes me as having a lot in common with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is also propaganda, but has still outlived lots of others written at the time. I’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and found it compelling and memorable, but I’d never call it a great novel.

The Comedians by Graham Greene

It’s been years since I’ve read a Graham Greene novel and I’d forgotten how much I like the fine moral distinctions that Greene draws. The story is about 3 men named Smith, Jones and Brown. It’s narrated by Brown who was born in Monaco of an English father (so his mother tells him but he never knew a father and suspected that he wasn’t actuality named Brown, maybe wasn’t even English) and a French mother. He was educated by the Jesuits in Monte Carlo—they wanted him to become a priest—and left after being initiated into sexuality by a older woman he met in a casino.

On a ship bound for Port au Prince, Brown meets Jones (a supposed war hero and soldier of fortune—of sorts) who has a similar background, who’s also made his way in the world, like Brown, not completely honestly, and Smith, an American who ran for President in 1948 for a vegetarian party. Brown is going back to run his hotel and take up again with Martha, the wife of a South American ambassador and daughter of a German official hanged by the Americans after the war. Jones has a letter of introduction to some official and some hush-hush scheme up his sleeve (which Brown, who knows Haiti under Papa Doc’s regime, assumes is dangerous in the extreme). Smith and his wife want to set up a vegetarian centre (because vegetarians are less aggressive and less warlike and can reform governments) and have an introduction to a minister whom Brown finds dead in his swimming pool on the first night. Three misfits in one of the world’s darkest capitals. And a Haitian, Dr. Magiot, whom Brown calls to help him deal with the body in the pool, a committed Communist (in an era when Papa Doc kept the Americans happy with his anti-Communist stance).

The distinction Brown draws is between those who are truly committed, like Dr. Magiot, and those with shallow beliefs or who have opted out, like Brown—the comedians. “I had forgotten how to be involved in anything. Somehow, somewhere I had lost completely the capacity to be concerned,” says Brown. Smith, who is initially committed to his vegetarian message, gives up on Haiti and, like any other salesman, moves on to the next potential customer. Jones, sought after as a military expert when in fact he fabricated all his heroism in Burma, does something like commit to a Haitian rebellion in the end—and dies without heroism or even gain, in the end.

It being a Graham Greene novel, the Catholic Church of course plays a role. Remember Brown was educated by Jesuits (whom his mother stiffed for the fees, but then they hoped to get a priest out of it). At the end of the novel, having read a letter from Dr. Magiot received after his death, Brown muses on his own detachment from life, “When I was a boy the fathers of the Visitation had told me that one test of a belief was this: that a man was ready to die for it. So Dr. Magiot thought too, but for what belief did Jones die?” In a dream he asks Jones why he is dying and Jones answers, “It’s in my part, old man, it’s in my part. But I’ve got this comic line—you should hear the whole theatre laugh when I say it. The ladies in particular.” But when Brown asks about the line, Jones can’t remember.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell

This book is the second of a trilogy about the failure of empire: Troubles (about April 1916), and The Singapore Grip (about the fall of Singapore in WWII) are the others. It’s a fast-moving historical novel, set in a mythical place but based on histories, letters and memoirs from the Indian Mutiny period. The time is the summer 1857. Mr. Hopkins, the Collector—primary British official in Krishnapur (isolated on the vast and dusty northern Indian plain)—worries that the chapattis that appear mysteriously around the British settlement, even inside his dispatch case, presage some coming troubles. He’s already been erecting earthworks—laughed at by most of his compatriots pursuing their usual occupations (horses and artillery for the military men—and pursuing the women, pampered creatures with little to do but survive in the heat, fanned by native servants, and preen for the men).

The subsequent revolt at the nearby military base where most of the British officers are killed and the sepoys take over causes Mr. Hopkins to gather his flock into the Residency. In addition to the British, military and civilian, and their dependents, there are the Maharaja’s son Hari and the “Prime Minister” who accompanies him, all the Eurasians of the town, the Sikhs from the military (a religious minority) and the Indian servants of many of the richer people, white and Eurasian. Following social morality of the time, a “ruined” young woman remains in the village. When a couple of the Englishmen go to rescue her, she refuses to come believing that her life is over. Only when one of the Englishwomen writes her a letter does she come to the Residency—in the nick of time because her cottage is burned almost immediately—but even then the Englishwomen living in the billiard room don’t want to associate with her and even, Louise, whose compassion made her write the letter, doesn’t want Lucy too close to her brother.

Farrell obviously did significant research on Victorian attitudes, especially the belief in progress (through science and technology but also in manners and morality). Britain believes it shines above all other societies and will endow the rest of the world with the benefit of its goods, inventions and ideas. The Collector holds up Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851 (with the Crystal Palace) as the apogee of British superiority; he has numerous souvenirs from his visit on display in the Residency. But the mutiny causes him to revise his opinions, to question what Britain can do for India.

The novel is comic which is probably the last thing you expect in a novel about people who endure a 4 months siege in which they battle not only the revolting sepoys, but weather (deadly heat followed by monsoons which threaten to carry away their fortifications), battle wounds, cholera and all manner of lesser diseases, insects, lack of food and water. Their clothes fall apart. The furniture is used to reinforce the earthworks. They are forced periodically to give up territory and retreat to smaller and more primitive conditions. Burying the dead is a nightly event. Powder runs low. Cannons are used so much they warp and won’t accept round cannon balls.

The sources of the humor are the pretensions of Empire, the padre’s increasingly frantic attempts to account for why God is punishing them, the “objects” that the Collector associates with British civilization that get buried in the earthworks or wrapped in ladies stockings to be hurled out of the cannon after it’s warped from constant use—things like silver spoons and false teeth.

Read it! I’m looking for Farrell’s two other anti-empire novels right now.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Sea by John Banville

Max Morden, the narrator of The Sea, is an aging art historian, not wildly successful, has been writing a book on the painter Bonnard but in fact has not got past chapter one and some notes he himself finds banal. His wife has recently died and he’s taken up temporary residence at The Cedars, a seaside resort in a house he remembers from childhood when he visited the area for summer vacations with his parents. He has gone to the place he calls Ballyless because of a dream in which nothing happens but in which he is “a big awkward boy” (as he had been once) walking down a road in winter, a dream which promised resolution of some kind. He immediately associated the resolution needed with the summer of the Graces where he befriended an odd set of twins (the boy have never spoken) and their parents, obviously richer and socially better placed than he was.

Max goes back and forth from that summer with the Graces, to the death of his wife, to his current life as a resident of the same house the Graces inhabited that significant summer, with sidetracks to his childhood (father abandoned mother who had no skills), his daughter Claire in the present, and various episodes in his career and life with Anna, his wife. It’s not really stream of consciousness: Max is not only conscious as he tells his story but doles it out in carefully chosen bits and pieces, withholding information to increase suspense but also to mislead readers. To the extent that any teller who shapes his own tale is bound to be centered on the self and more interested in the listener’s impression of him than in strict veracity, Max is unreliable.

Critics rave about Banville’s consummate prose in this novel—and he is a great stylist—but forget to mention that the language is Max’s, a bit pompous, with lots of big words and references to works of art the reader is presumed to know but may not. Banville takes a chance on a character readers may not like a lot. Max is stubborn, isolates himself, possibly even from the rich wife he mourns, certainly from his solicitous daughter. He’s at once brutally honest about his short-comings and out to make himself if not a tragic hero, at least a figure who looms, one whose life holds mysteries and tragedies big enough to matter.

Going to The Cedars allows him to relive the summer with the Graces, where he first fell in love with the woman and then with Chloe her strange and often cruel daughter. The other residents of the house are Myles, Chloe’s silent and enigmatic twin, the father, and Rose, the girl hired to watch the children for the summer. Max never mentions age but obviously he and Chloe were that summer just on the brink of sexual maturity. Max—typical kid looking for conspiracies—attributes much of the tension in the household to Rose’s being in love with Mr. Grace. Clearly there are tensions and clearly they will build to a tragic conclusion, and it’s one that Max has never dealt with or even put behind him.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream

Earlier this year I read another book on a similar subject; it had less than I really wanted to know about the Gold Rush and more than I wanted to know about California politics. It did, however, cause me to recognize what a huge part the West played in the battle over slavery in the years before the Civil War.

Brands’ book covers the same time period and some of the same material but there’s a lot more on the Gold Rush per se and on its consequence—not just the political fallout. There are excellent early chapters telling the story of James Marshall who ran the mill at Coloma where gold was first found and his partner, John Sutter, a Swiss national who was the power figure in the area as well as on the wide range of people who came to the gold country and, even more interesting, how they got there. They came by sea, around Cape Horn from NY and the East Coast, though some went to Chagras in Panama and overland to Panama City hoping to pick up a ship on the Pacific and cut the time to San Francisco. The Panama crossing before either canal or railroad was deadly and the wait in Panama City was often prolonged since ships coming up the coast of South America were already full up with gold diggers. Ships came from Europe around Cape Horn too and across the Pacific from Australia and China and Japan. San Francisco harbor was soon full of empty ships—whole crews having deserted to the gold fields—but then the city—such as it was then, newly renamed from Yerba Buena—was deserted too. Brands picks 4 or 5 who came to San Francisco by ship and detailed their journeys, from France, from Chili, from Australia and China as well as from the US (like Jesse Fremont with who traveled with her infant via Panama). He does the same with several who came by the much more arduous route overland. At the time, there was no “beaten track” to California, only the Oregon Trail which took one far to the north. It wasn’t too hard to get to Utah where the Mormons were settling in but getting past that great desert and over the Sierras before snowfall was tricky. Brands follows one party that went too far south and ended up in Death Valley; they survived but many didn’t.

Brands goes on to develop the technology and the economics of gold mining, the social consequences for the individuals he followed to the American River, as well the politics. He profiles other well known characters of the period such as John Fremont, the first Republican candidate for president, Leland Stanford, who “built” the transcontinental railroad, William Tecumseh Sherman, Mark Twain (don’t forget the jumping frog of Calavaras County) and others.

Brands, like the late Stephen Ambrose, is an academic historian who writes exciting tales that happen to be readable history. This is the second of his I’ve read and will look for more.