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?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Battle Cry of Freedom - James McPherson

The crucible of the nation's history. The Civil War reflects many of the fault lines which still divide Americans. Section, class, race, rural and urban, majority and minority. Each of these simplify and marginalize the different complications of this epochal confrontation. Yet a modicum of truth is contained in simplified versions of history. The lived-experience of an event bears upon its reception and interpretation through the ages, but the histories which touch the lives of nations exist in memory and legacy longer than in lived-experience. The Civil War is a recurrent circle: it ebbs and flows through the American experience. It bubbles and percolates. South versus North; slave versus free; the simple divisions were overcome at Appomattox. The rifts could not have been cast aside by a treaty.

As a one volume history of the Civil War, McPherson's narrative casts a wide net, bringing the reader into contact with the numerous threads preceding the war, and fronts which defined it. Bull Run, Chickamauga, Wilderness, Vicksburg, Gettysburg; these were the pivotal moments of the war. But the lesser fronts and often overlooked efforts: of the navy, government functionaries, railroad workers, ladies' aid societies, and many more, put the Union and Confederate armies in position to decide the contest. The Civil War placed the entire country on a war-time footing. Soldiers' stories make up only a portion of its history.

Ending with the death of President Lincoln, McPherson does not treat Reconstruction. Because much of the Civil War's legacy was born in the years following the battles this omission is notable. Within one volume McPherson's work is fine introduction to the conflict and the period in American history. Distilling mountains of scholarship is no mean feat. It may be next to impossible to write something 'new' about the Civil War. Perhaps it is far more valuable to write something true about it. McPherson seems to have accomplished this.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

"let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God."

The pursuit of the White Whale becomes a journey into one man's monomania. Following a great typhoon the Pequod seems to have been transported into another world entirely. In this world compass needle, log and line, forward vision, and mission, all are Ahab's. As if even life and death have been inverted, to be overboard is finally to float, the heavens are pulled down to the depths, and coffins become life buoys. One man's madness, his obsession, are these enough to turn the world upside down?

To look into the eyes of men, of pride, faith, suffering, and finally madness, Melville takes us around the world and into the heart of the sea. Harpooners, mates, and crew present certain essences of human character - all are needed for the successful sailing of ship. Together they pursue one man's goal - even unto death. What strength are all of these mitigating personages in contrast to an overweening mania? Yes, Ahab is something of a tyrant, but perhaps no more so than the passions of any person. Time and again he is given chance to abandon his mission and mania. Yet revenge calls to him.

In the end it is less the overwhelming powerful forces that destroy then our ability to live peaceably alongside them. The world is what it is, so too is the Whale. Our choices are our own - they are the measure of our doom.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen

Journeys are what we make of them. The heart, friendship, loss, memory, or love can measure the vast expanses of an undiscovered continent as surely as miles beyond miles in faraway lands. Similarly, the mind and heart can be explored and found anywhere - habits of both precede our footsteps on the road which rises up to meet us, just as we are needed to land our paces.

Matthiessen's work is a true travelogue - in that the landscape ends up evoking and reflecting the traveler's internal life. Matthiessen looks into the mountains of the Dolpo region and time and again sees himself reflected, looking back at him. Do we find it strange that Matthiessen titles his book after a most elusive creature which he will never see? We should not. This is a book about death and emptiness, about missing and longing. Matthiessen's journey is in search of himself amidst spaces of loneliness, both internal and external. To be one's own companion, or, rather, to be acquainted with the companionship of the universe - this too is the traveler's road. V. S. Naipaul famously wrote that "the world is what it is." Such a sentiment could be comfortably appended to this journey.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Frontiers - Noel Mostert

The incursion and settlement of the Cape frontier by the British and Boers transformed South Africa. As the frontier moved eastward, from Cape Town towards the Xhosa and Zulu heartland, settlers and colonials became increasingly enmeshed within the political dynamics of the indigenous people. While Mostert's is primarily a story told from the colonial perspective looking eastward, it brings the transformed Xhosa world into stark relief.

Elegant and carefully crafted, Mostert's work displays a journalistic quality. Clearly the result of painstaking historical research, Mostert's detail pulls the reader into a foreign world. His success is evident: at more than 1200 pages the story rarely loses steam and keeps the reader engaged; no mean feat. Historical characters like De Buys, Stockenstrom, Maqoma, Smith, and Sandile are resurrected and leap off the page as complicated and themselves dynamic actors. Tracing these actors' movements and machinations keeps the narrative taught and the story compelling. Part of the book's length seems to be an implicit argument by Mostert that to understand the transformation and settlement of the Cape frontier  (and thus modern South Africa) fully, one needs to become acquainted with the story in all its capaciousness. In this manner his account is convincing.

While the interactions between Xhosa and colonialist are Mostert's primary concern, the work could have given more space to the transformations along the Xhosa's eastern frontier with the Zulu. Beyond the British-Xhosa frontier, too often the Xhosa-Zulu heartland resembles a homogeneous unit. How the Xhosa were impinged upon by Zulu power and the mfecane (or whatever historical variation we accept of it) might have provided a more complete understanding of Xhosa actions during the period. This is meant less as a criticism and more as a suggestion for further research.

One of Mostert's signal successes herein is the majesty and mystery with which he treats the African landscape. As the narrative unfolds the darkness of the African map is slowly filled in and the mists of mystery role away. This is, of course, bound to the perspective of the explorer, colonizer, and settler, yet it brings the reader along as though they too are uncovering this new world and witnessing as it is made and remade throughout the 19th century.

Monday, April 11, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway

"The world is a fine place and worth fighting for..."

Hemingway's world consists of people and relationships. Of men: their origins tethering them to cultures of pride, discouragement, complications, and characters. Their lives are both lived within themselves as members of, though also slightly transcendent of, their circumstance. Each is of a time and place - though never fully constrained by nor defined by it. National character, culture, circumstance, only carry one so far. We are all slightly surprising to ourselves and others. Yet the wheel of the self spins and we are brought circling back to those repeating aspects by which the self is known to itself and others. In this way the individual is simultaneously bound and free - both predictable and utterly perplexing. Unique entity.

So too is human exchange anchored and uncertain. Our means and modes of interaction ring familiar notes; yet each tune stands apart. The structures of relationships - between friends, or fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, superior and subordinate, or between lovers - provide certain norms and folkways, certain ways of being in exchange. Yet each instance is its own. The tension of sameness and novelty pervades relations.

Life and the world can thus be viewed through a microcosm. But each microcosm is necessarily incomplete. A map with a perfect fidelity to reality is nothing less than the world entire. Three days may be sufficient to know the world. In this, our own microcosm, sameness and novelty contest. We are grounded and chained and set free.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin

What are the factors which make a person? The question contains two parts. First is character: how is it that each of us becomes what we are? Second is the manner in which each of us are known: how we are understood, conceived to be by the world around us. In this latter account we are of our time, and, to the extent that we are remembered and reconceived in the minds of others, of other times as well. In this second estimation each is fully of the world. Of the first, that of character, similarly each seems shaped by their environment. Yet, the individual is somewhat transcendent of it - unique in a way that we have not learned to account for. Such transcendence is manifest in the somewhat surprising actions of people. Sometimes an individual's transcendence - their personality - moves beyond their small circle of associates to the wider world. Yet, to be thrust forward to the precipice of eternity requires the even less understood vagaries of the world and the forces that call certain generations to grapple with the problems of the ages. Then the transcendence of the individual may stand athwart opposing forces and forever leave its stamp. Abraham Lincoln was, by any measure, among the greatest of American personages. That he has become so is surely due to his character and the environments that shaped him, but it was also due to that great societal conflict, the Civil War, that Lincoln was able to forcefully leave his stamp on history.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's work traces the rise of Lincoln and his adversaries for the 1860 Republican Presidential Nomination. As an exercise in comparative biography Kearns Goodwin strives to show us how Lincoln and his rivals were men of their time; forged by riding the circuit, public service, negotiating positions on America's "peculiar institution," and their lust for power. In each man's rise we see the tenuous years of Antebellum America and how each negotiated their lives within it. Kearns Goodwin is masterful in drawing portraits of character; we feel that we have seen the essence of Lincoln, Seward, and Chase. Yet the work is somewhat uneven in balancing the genius of Lincoln's politics with the personal and social lives of he and his rivals. We are often left under-informed about the contexts of the political difficulties that Lincoln so tactfully threaded. While the force of his personality, in particular his capacity for forgiveness and magnanimity seemed to know no bounds, his politics was also eminently practical. Yet, the full situating and the subsequent implications of this practicality could stand a more thorough treatment.

More than anything this is a work of character exposition. That Lincoln's character was demanded by the historical moment is made manifest and how this was forged is accounted for carefully and brilliantly. As an historical analysis of politics the picture is less clear and forceful. Perhaps this is the legacy of Lincoln: it is the man who shines out from history.