Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coming into the Country - John McPhee

Fewer than 20 years removed from achieving statehood, Alaska was still very much a frontier. A place for misfits, the prideful, the quiet, the lonely, but also the committed, the true, and the false, Alaskans came (and come) in all forms. But generally (with the glaring exception of indigenous people) they are immigrants, who have been drawn, not just away from one country but towards another. Committed to both inhabiting the place of their imagination and crafting a place that is their own.

McPhee recounts Alaska and its people negotiating the complicated meanings of being both part of and apart from the United States. The infiltration of people, technologies, and governmental order along the frontier could, for many, make this vast place seem increasingly small. Along the foothills and inlets of Juneau, spreading across the Turnagain Arm, into Denali and up to the North Slope would come employment, services, communication, as well as laws, rules, oversight. Alaska was the last place in the United States a person could homestead - set out for an unoccupied plot to make their own.

Though a vast space of wilderness and wildness, Alaska is also a place of people. These are McPhee's favored subjects. The city planner for a would-be newly cited state capital. The trapper on his line. The town council. The homesteader. The miner. Alaska in its many iterations dominates,and yet is shaped by its people. The land is vast, yet not untouched. Its meaning is apparent for some; to others, only hinted at. McPhee's work is as capacious as the state, finding space for the plurality of human and natural voices. It is a testament to a specific time, in a seemingly timeless land.

Monday, October 24, 2016

All the Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy

The arid lands along the Texas-Mexico borderlands were, and remain, a vast space of dust, mesquite, and sun. Cormac McCarthy's spare style somewhat mimics the spare landscape. The country, the people, and the relationship between them come alive in prose embodying distance and space. As they traverse the rangelands the lives of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins take shape. They grow and change in response to a land, the bones of which are laid before us. The country is hard on people.

John Grady Cole starts as a young man, moving gradually toward adulthood. There are no plans to speak of. He takes what is allowed to him, but is not swallowed by circumstance. Both he and Lacey seem content in the knowledge that most things don't have a suitable explanation. There are human powers which move our lives and we can choose how to meet these powers, but most people will have little say in their actions. The world is alternately bright as the open plains and dark as a jail cell. Only at certain, fleeting times is there balance between the two. Nevertheless, life pulses with blood and there is no horizon beyond death.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Five Love Languages - Gary Chapman

This one is a bit of a departure, but having at least one book emphasizing relationships with other, rather than just myself is at the least a paltry offering. Not only geared towards helping us understand our significant other, Chapman's work provides grist for thoughtful reflection across many of the most significant relationships composing our lives. We have all had the experience of being misunderstood by those closest to us. This can be particularly galling when we are, ostensibly, try to be caring and/or show our devotion to someone else. Chapman gives us tools to help untangle these missed connections. Reading and discussing this book with a partner, family, or friends can stimulate meaningful conversations and serve to bring relationships closer. While there is certainly some essentializing taking place, it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to dismiss Chapman's numerous insights. Perhaps the most important of which is a reminder that often the most important thing we can do is to listen and pay attention to those closest to us.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Race of a Lifetime - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. A campaign biography is thus a particular kind of conceit. The author(s), after-the-fact is trying to simultaneously recreate the tension and uncertainty of a contest which the reader knows the outcome to, while, also, reading the tea leaves for clues as to why one side emerged the victor. The work balances at a knife's edge: when successful the genre makes for both insightful and compelling reading. The grandmaster of the genre, the standard by which all campaign biographies remain judged, is T.H. White, whose Making of the President series (chronically the elections from 1960 to 1976) read as powerful political science and a careful study of the (political) human condition. Richard Ben Cramer and Bob Woodward have, with varying levels of success added their own efforts, respectively recounting the 1988 and 1996 elections.

Heilemann and Halperin's work reads a bit 'in the bag' for Obama. In contrast to his staid, mature, professional, and careful approach, Hillary Clinton is indecisive and McCain ill-prepared to meet the challenges, both of campaigning and (seemingly) of governing. The characterization of the losing candidate resembles aspects of White's Goldwater, and Woodward's Dole. We may wonder if there is some more subtle lens we apply to explain the failures of the loser? McCain however receives somewhat short shrift: he is simply not as interesting as either Obama or the Arizona Senator's eventual running mate Sarah Palin. The great revelation of the work is the haphazard manner in which Palin was selected and the almost immediate realization that she was way over her head. This, perhaps more than any other single aspect, is the perspective from which we view McCain's fitness for the Office.

Living with President Obama these past eight years Heilemann and Halperin's perspective on the man seem to have been borne out. If Averell Harrimann truly said that, to be President, one must, above all other things, desire to be President, Barack Obama appears to challenge this assertion. Reading this account he appears, willing, able, and increasingly ready to serve, but the passionate need to be President is absent. Perhaps this made him a more balanced campaigner and manager, perhaps it explains what some see as a cool detachment from the political aspects of this most political position. Perhaps the nature of the Presidency, and the process by which we select a President, has changed fundamentally. While Obama's candidacy seemed to represent a shift in America, with hindsight it appears to embody more of an uncertain anticipation of a new America. One emerging from a clearly defined post-war era into a future we cannot yet see.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Afrikaners - Hermann Giliomee

Survival. Hermann Giliomee looks at the history of a people who dominated twentieth century South Africa and sees how a heritage of marginalization and struggle has inculcated them with an ever-present concern that their people and their way of life requires defending. Because of their isolation the people are somewhat fragile. Fragile and under attack. Apartheid stands alone in the latter-half of the twentieth century as the last case of overt, formal, racially-motivated national segregation. By the last decades of the twentieth century the ruling National Party of South Africa was holding on by the only means it knew: doubling-down on separation, exacerbating formal inequality. Any other approach, any compromise, was seen as a threat to the volk. Giliomee contends that ceding power was seen as analogous to authorizing a cultural death.

Telling the story of the Dutch settlers who became Boers and then emerged as Afrikaners Giliomee recounts a people occupying an uncertain middle ground. Never Company people, nor fully accepted as part of imperial British society, nor willing to 'lower' themselves to the status of black Africans, the Boers initially defined themselves by what they were not. As their cultural identity became forged through a shared 19th century mythology the Afrikaner began to emerge as emblematic of a people and a way of life. Slagtersnek, the Great Trek, Dingaan's Day, and the Anglo-Boer War all were the foundation of a fiercely independent people who saw themselves besieged. Once the Union of South Africa was inaugurated the volk sought to ensure that they maintained control over their small corner of the world.

Yet, the prospects of survival change. As the world pressed in upon South Africa, as liberals at home and abroad, and as black South Africans increasingly found their political voice, survival of the government and survival of the volk were once again separated. The government could not stand; the volk had to find a new means of defining themselves in a composite society. The next chapter of the Afrikaners has only begun.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne

Back to Hogwarts and the wizarding world. I'm not too proud to admit it.

If there is no other take-away from this one it is that time-travel is messy. The ethical qualms faced by some of the older characters as they wrestle with the unlived-lives of parallel selves in parallel times was perhaps the most interesting human aspect of the story. What types of cognitive equipment could we possibly have to assess our own actions in regards to the existence of a self we can never know?

Part of the issue with the script format is the asymmetry in which we are presented the characters. The original cast has been fleshed-out for us through stories providing insights into their actions and personalities. The new characters here only present us with dialogue through which to piece them together. As a result Albus Severus and Scorpius are shadows compared to more familiar characters. Much of this may be obviated on stage; in book form it serves to move the emphasis away from the primary protagonists. In the end it feels like a bit of a rushed job. Nevertheless the wizarding world remains a rich place and enjoyable to revisit.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

Intimacy means allowing someone else into the most hidden parts of ourselves. When someone is close to us they see behind the walls we construct - personal, financial, social, protective. Knowing what others don't know is a form of special access. It makes can bring us closer together, but it also makes them powerful, We trust that the power we have given will not be used against us. Gone Girl is a story about what happens when that trust is abused. For the story to work Amy and Nick need to know most everything about each other - yet still be capable of surprising their partner. In each case they use the power of their intimacy against the other. In each case they have kept something from their partner, something important.

Intimacy is also about commitment. Commitment runs throughout every page of this story. Who is committed to whom. Who is committed to what. What happens when commitment falters, or becomes twisted. The story is especially powerful when we get to see both two sides to Amy' commitment.

Intimacy and generous commitment are among foundations of solid, meaningful, positive relationships. But when they become warped relationships verge into dark places. Finally Nick and Amy's relationship is about competition. Who, each by their own standards, will emerge as the winner?