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?

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.