Wednesday, December 21, 2016

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

Allowing someone else into our world, making them a confidant, or an intimate in our own lives is simultaneously a means of expanding ourselves and of letting go. At a certain point we trust others who are close to us. We trust them to be gentle when we are fragile and to push us when it is appropriate - even if we may not know when that time is. Relationships of trust require tending, practice, negotiating norms and boundaries. Loss, then, somewhat impoverishes our world. The space of relationship-as-expansion disappears.

Helen Macdonald's book is about training a goshawk. But it is also, and perhaps more so, about what loss can do and how we see that loss manifest in our endeavors and in ourselves. Macdonald shows us how the experience of losing her father is poured into her developing relationship with the goshawk, whom she calls Mabel. Macdonald clearly understands that the type of relationship she has with Mabel is of a different character than what she had with her father. She does not conflate her sense of emotional connection with the hawk's. Yet, it would be a narrow understanding of relationships - of any kind - to denigrate the one between a person and a bird as somehow less worthy of our examination and reflection.

Taking solace in a relationship, say between human and animal, does not mean that it replaces the relationship lost. The world is expanded when we bring others into it. Whether they be human or otherwise. How it is expanded says more about the interactions of the relationship than it does about either participant.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Civil War: a Narrative, Part One Fort Sumter to Perryville

The first of Foote's three-part magnum opus on the American Civil War. This is the interweaving story of the men, both Union and Confederate, who would grapple for the future of the American experiment. Foote's is a piece of by-gone scholarship. Battles take center stage and the lives of great men loom large. Witness Lincoln and Davis, McClellan and Lee, Stonewall and Hooker.

Foote conveys sideline skirmishes and massive battles with equal attention. Both the mountains of eastern Tennessee and bloody excesses of Shiloh are given space. As the conflict ratchets ever upward (more Americans were killed at Shiloh alone than all prior American conflicts combined), Foote unblinkingly peers into woods, along the trenches, and across the fields. He excels in communicating the chaos, noise, and uncertainty of battle without losing individual voices in the fray. It is so terrible to behold because men do the reaper's work: mowing one another down. Embodying the terrible scythe.

By the end of the first volume the country is firmly entrenched in the indispensable American conflict. Many on both sides thought it would be a short and decisive war. While the Confederates pursued international recognition, the Union believed a crushing blow on the road to Richmond would demoralize the South. By the end of 1862 this much was clear: there would be no easy resolution. The South had won its share of signal victories; in many cases Union armies seemed to under-perform.  At this juncture the feeling is simultaneously one of hard-fought experience and a tenuous waiting. While the Confederacy struggles to prop up an impoverished nation and resource-limited army, the Union has yet to bring down its hammer. By the beginning of 1863 it appears that only through overwhelming force would the Union prevail. While only through northern exhaustion could the Confederacy break-away.

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

Having at least one book emphasizing relationships with others, 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 the important 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, trying 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 we are always able to listen closely 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.