Monday, December 27, 2010

When the Game Was Ours - Jackie MacMullan (with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson)

An examination of the perhaps the greatest individual rivalry in American sports, When the Game Was Ours chronicles the relationship between Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird and Los Angeles Lakers floor general Magic Johnson.  Relying heavily on interviews with not just Bird and Magic, but a hole host of NBA legends, Jackie MacMullan shows us not only how these two superstars defined themselves and their basketball success by one another, but how they came to respect each other and became friends, bonded by their love of basketball and competition.

Here we see Bird and Magic pushing each other throughout their careers.  Win or lose in their NBA Finals match-ups, each of them was driven to always work harder, to be a more complete player, knowing that, across the country, the other was pushing himself just as hard.  In candid interviews both Bird and Magic explain their almost single-minded focus on one-upping each other throughout their careers.  Knowing that, if the Celtics could beat the Lakers, or vice-versa, surely either team could dispatch with the rest of the NBA.

At its best the book captures the essence of the era in which the NBA became a global brand.  Without Larry and Magic, without the Celtics versus Lakers rivalry the landscape of professional basketball the world over would be drastically different.  It is a lament for a lost era, but one certainly worth reliving and retelling.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Greatest Show on Earth - Richard Dawkins

If evolution has an advocate it is Richard Dawkins and in The Greatest Show on Earth, this preeminent and broad-ranging thinker on the questions of how evolution has come to create the world we see today, he pleads for a greater understanding of the processes first elucidated by Charles Darwin.  Primarily written as a critique of and response to creationists, Dawkins' work makes the case for why evolution is not only a true understanding of life on this planet, but also how it can be beautiful and empowering to those with the eyes to see.

It is at this juncture of science, natural history, grace and wonder that Dawkins is at his best; one cannot help but marvel along with him as the reader is brought across time and space to see the intricacies of the life of cells, or the great arms race between predator and prey.  The process of natural selection and its impacts on absolutely every aspect of life on this planet are the star of the show and Dawkins makes them quite an attraction indeed.  The book is most valuable in the scope and scale of its explanatory power and if Dawkins' work has a greater utility it is to allow the reader to draw together the seemingly disparate strands of organisms, environment, genetics and natural selection.

That evolution needs a defense at all may strike the reader as strange, however Dawkins is livid at the notion that , so he claims, 40% of Americans believe in creationism in some form.  That Dawkins is so bent out of shape over this is wonderful for the community of readers, if, for no other reason, then that it means he will continue to provide works of this seamless integration and nuance.  However, one cannot help but think that the work is so much preaching to the choir.  The writing slows down greatly as Dawkins attacks creationism and, by certain extension, anything but the most scientific of epistemologies to viewing the world around us.  What remains unclear at the end (though this is supposedly the realm of his recent bestseller The God Delusion) is why it is so important that everyone view the world as Dawkins does?  Besides the intangible benefit of seeing our universe as it "truly is", what measurable impact does a defense of evolution hope to achieve?  We are no closer to being able to answer these thorny questions at the end of his work.

All of this is not to diminish the results Dawkins has achieved here.  One can argue with his motives and positions concerning social betterment, what is unimpeachable are his prose and ability to view the multiplicity of life on this planet and bring accounts, studies, research, and various disciplines to bear upon one another.  In this realm he is perhaps the most free-thinking and far-seeing advocate for the scientific view of the world since Darwin, and that is no mean feat.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Heart of Africa - Sihle Khumalo

On the move by public transport from Johannesburg to Kibuye, Rwanda, Sihle Khumalo provides a black South Africans' take on moving across the continent he calls home.  In many ways a typical fish-out-of-water story, Heart of Africa obviously takes on a different tenor because it is a rare travelogue written by an African on the move in Africa.  Much has been written by men and women of northern/western extraction about their movement across the developing world, but these works often idealize the lives within developing countries and the people they encounter.  Khumalo is at his best showing westerners that there is a grand diversity in the African experience and that we view the continent without differentiation only through our ignorance and to our loss.

Frequently Khumalo wrestles with his identity as a South African and how that impacts his views of people he meets along his travels.  All-too-frequently he is concerned for his own safety and the safety of his belongings.  This is far less a comment on the location of his travels then on his experiences living and working South Africa.  Though it is an easy dig at South Africa to complain of the country's crime problems, coming from the perspective of a South African the true pervasiveness of the problem is hard to escape; concerns for his safety have clearly affected Khumalo to the point that he has trouble feeling safe in crowds or trusting strangers.  It is to his unending credit that Khumalo is first, willing to undertake this journey anyway and, second, examine his assumptions and see that they do not fit with the countries he is moving through.  It is this willingness to examine the circumstances around him and the manner in which he responds to them that makes Khumalo's work so insightful.

If the book has any drawback it is that too much time is spent focusing on the logistics and not enough on how Khumalo's understanding of the world he is seeing and experiencing is changing and growing throughout his journey.  As a reader one cannot hope for any meaningful hard and fast conclusions from Khumalo that would not read as temporal and trite, however, given that we have come along with him on this very enjoyable trip, you are left hoping for a little more insight surrounding his relationship to himself and how that has grown and changed throughout the adventure.  Khumalo writes, "I hate it when life happens to me... I want, at all time to happen to life."  At its core, travel is often about letting life happen to you and understanding what that means for the person you are.  Khumalo has written a nice narrative about his travel, but we cannot hope but wish for a little more critical examination of his role in them.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Education of Henry Adams - Henry Adams

Perhaps America's most famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams chronicles the life of perhaps the last generation of true American aristocracy.  Son to an ambassador, grandson and great-grandson to presidents, of the Boston Adams, Henry Adams came of age during the explosion of the industrial revolution, served during the civil war and closes his narrative after the dawning of the new century and the birth of the age of Teddy Roosevelt.  Throughout the narrative is held together by Adams constant search for "education".

The prose sparkles most where we are given insights into Adams' impressions of politics, diplomacy and the great men of his time.  Witness the awkwardness and inward-focus of President Lincoln, the frustration of the American embassy in England or the stern presence of his grandfather President John Quincy Adams.  In his life Henry Adams serves as a bridge between the bygone days of the revolution and its characters, through the Civil War and into the twentieth century.

A constant theme of the work is Adams lamentations and confusions over the coming world of industry and technology.  One cannot help but identify with a man who feels the world passing him by; as speed, industry and global industrialization run-away with the future Adams wistfully wonders whether he isn't a man born to a time that has no place in the modern world.  In many ways he is the model for the modern American.  Striving, torn, in search of ideals perhaps forever out of reach - a model of what he would call the American character.

"The American thought of himself as a restless, pushing, energetic, ingenious person, always awake and trying to get ahead of his neighbors... [also, he is] a quiet, peaceful, shy figure, rather in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, somewhat sad, sometimes pathetic, once tragic; or like Grant, inarticulate, uncertain, distrustful of himself, still more distrustful of others, awed by money." p. 297

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Ecological Indian - Shepard Krech III

Taking the famous 1970s environmental advertisement portraying Iron Eyes Cody - the crying Indian - as his jumping-off point, anthropologist Shepard Krech examines the validity behind popular notions of American Indians as having lived in harmony with nature prior to contact with Europeans.  Critically examining modern conceptions, Krech employs historical and archeological evidence to attempt to paint a picture of how numerous Indians across time, throughout the American continent, actually interacted with the world around them.  In chapters focusing on the disappeared Hohokam, Indians' use of fire, and different tribes relationships with game animals, Krech convincingly portrays the dynamic relationships of Indians and the natural world.  Though it may seem like an obvious conclusion, one of Krech's most important assertions is that there were, and indeed continue to be, as many different ways of interacting with and thinking about the natural world as there are peoples and individuals engaged in their natural context.  By getting away from culturally-reliant and overly-simplified definitions of Indians' interactions with the non-human world, Krech has done much to flesh out these first Americans less as myth and more as complex, thoughtful, insightful as well as at time profligate, wasteful and careless people.  This is crucial because it allows for the beginning of a dialogue in which we can think about Indians as real, dynamic people who did exist on this continent for thousands of years.

Though at times rambling and overburdened with redundancies Krech does provide a more fulsome understanding of Indians situated within their specific historical context.  The important take away from this work is that we have much to learn about Indians as people and dynamic cultures and would be well-suited to asses their worldviews and reactions to change in light of our own dynamic culture and natural world.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Making of the President 1964 - T.H. White

"It was as if the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass had planned the elections of 1964 - all should win, all should have a prize.  Lodge should have New Hampshire, Rockefeller should have Oregon, Goldwater should have California - and Lyndon Johnson should have the country." - p. 139

In his retelling of the 1964 presidential election, T.H. White shows us America at a turning point.  Less than five months removed from the assassination of President Kennedy, the citizens of New Hampshire kicked off the primary for the Republican nomination to the presidency.  Taking center stage for the first half of White's narrative are the men who would try to fashion a coherent, conservative response to an American condition that in so many ways seemed in the throws of change.  It reads as seemingly unfair that well-meaning and thoughtful leaders such as William Scranton and Nelson Rockefeller had to espouse a logical response to an administration which was itself struggling through its nascent stages.  Regardless of political stances one gets the sense that any Republican nominee in '64 would have been doomed from the start.

The nomination of Barry Morris Goldwater set off what White describes as a re-examination of American present and future, with the conservative crusader valiantly trying to combat not only a changing world, but the political ranges of Lyndon Johnson and the specter of John F Kennedy.  White paints a picture of Goldwater as perhaps the most reluctant presidential candidate in recent memory.  Averell Harriman said that, above all else, a man seeking the presidency must desire the position more than anything else in his life and more than his competitors.  Goldwater lacked this desire.  Truly concerned about the future of America Goldwater desired to crusade on issues of spirit, freedom and liberty.  Very adroitly President Johnson and his staff responded by focusing on issues of economic and national security and assuaging fears as the civil rights movement continued to burn across the country.  In what would be a historic landslide for ole Landslide Lyndon, America was perhaps denied a chance to engage on questions surrounding the concern of a moral society: "what is man's relationship, and his responsibility to, his fellow man"?

This retelling comes across as one framing perhaps the first truly modern election in American history.  White provides us glimpses at the candidates and their issues that feel so strikingly relevant to much that Washington gropes with today.  Phenomenally reported and masterfully written, White has taken an election whose outcome we know in advance, as it seems did so many of the players at the time, and given it drama, vitality and wonder.  Coming on the heels of tragedy as it does, the taste for retail politics seems all but spent and therefore the cycle takes on a thoughtful, melancholy and, in the end, hopeful tone.

This election could not help but live in the shadow of John Kennedy; White sets the stage for all of this by devoting the first forty pages to the assassination of and funeral for President Kennedy; this passage ought be regarded as some of the best historical/journalistic writing produced by an American.  Later White would write in his autobiography that November 22nd in Dallas was a fundamental moment of change and paradigmatic shift in the narrative of the country.  Whether he was aware of it in 1965 as he wrote this book is unclear, but on reflection from the present this work gains so much power as we see America once again in the process of struggle and reinvention; of citizens and leaders, of the young and old, rich and poor, black and white wrestling with what kind of people they are and of what kind of country they want to continue to build around them.  A masterful work.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Great Plains - Ian Frazier

Initially Frazier's work struck me as too episodic: with passages on Indians, musings on the wind and weather, concerns of nuclear weapons silos and editorials on the value of the western lifestyle coming from across the wide-open landscape adrift among the sea grasses.  Yet the more I thought about what his work does, the more I thought about how any sense of unity from a travelogue is really constructed around notions of the author's personal journey, and, really Great Plains is about the place, its people and its history, not about Ian Frazier.  The notion of a cogent narrative only makes sense for the narrator, for everyone else encountered along the way the traveler's coming and going is exactly a moment of disjointedness, something outside of the ordinary.

Frazier makes no bones about the fact that he is a stranger in the Great Plains, that vast expanse of land from the edge of the eastern forests to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  As similar outsiders Frazier situates his readers in the selected history and developments of the Great Plains.  Throughout he succeeds in casting the region as a palimpsest, with modern concerns only properly understood in light of what has come before.  Indeed Frazier makes a convincing argument that it is specifically this light of history in which the Great Plains are best viewed, for it is here that the recent past of American history remains the most visible and visceral.  Here was the last outpost of the free Indians, of the tribes of Lakota, Shoshone, Mandan and the Crow and a healthy portion of the book is focused on the disappearing history of the Indian tribes.  The book begins with dead Indians and to a certain extent never fully departs from this theme.  Along the way Frazier gives voice to the feeling that much of our continent's heritage has been lost, to never be regained.

"For a moment I could imagine the past rewritten, wars unfought, the buffalo and Indians undestroyed, the prairie unplundered.  Maybe history did not absolutely have to turn out the way it did." - p. 174

At its heart the Great Plains for Frazier, and indeed for many who live there, is really about another America, one that exists on the margins of the two coasts.  There time moves differently, with an eye to the future but also with a foot in the past.  There much may seem unmodern, but it is rather a place of people who have chosen, or been stuck in, a different kind of modern America.  Most people would say that the Great Plains have little to recommend themselves to people of the outside world.  But the plains Indians didn't think so and neither, it seems, does Ian Frazier.

"They are the lodge of Crazy Horse." -p. 214

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid - Douglas Hofstadter

Ostensibly Hofstadter's book examines the works of logician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher and composer J.S. Bach, weaving their these together to gain insight into our approaches to knowledge and how this impacts our attempts at creating and thinking about artificial intelligence.  Beyond the surface the work examines what Hofstadter terms, "Strange Loops", or alternately, "Tangled Hierarchies"; approaching the question of how we often seem to end up right back where we started?

The book brings together a multiplicity of disciplines and traditions to try for a better understanding of the relationship between the inanimate, lower-levels of human brain function and the cognitions which arise therein.  In essence Hofstadter speaks of the "hardware" of the brain - its physical constituent parts - and the "software" - that which is changeable, grouped and malleable to the world around us.

Of course this is a lot to tackle, but Hofstadter succeeds admirable (he was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for the work).  Throughout he clearly interweaves mathematics, zen, molecular biology, classical music, art and logic (to name a few) in hopes of more clearly explicating how people experience the world around us and how we differentiate that across numerous levels of understanding.  Of crucial importance to him is at what level we examine phenomena and what of them we expect?

This book is long, at times layered in obscurities of the most abstract of mathematics, occasionally redundant and perhaps a bit too long-winded.  It is also incredibly insightful and a true journey of the mind and, perhaps, even the spirit.  I already consider it one of the more insightful and instructive works I've been able to read carefully, and even understand some of.  I look forward to turning its lessons over in my mind for years to come.

Monday, November 8, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Somehow I navigated the American educational system without reading Harper Lee's classic.  True to rumor and myth, Atticus Finch is a hero of the highest order and would serve as a fine model for any young man, not just aspiring lawyers.  The kind of steadfastness and quiet dignity he brings to the story serves as a rock and moral compass - even when Atticus himself appears daunted by the proper way forward.  Not only a tale of fairness, struggle, inequality and morality, but one that contains beautifully written passages.

We laughed.  Haints, Hot Steams, incantations, secret signs, had vanished with our years as mist with sunrise.  - p.293

True economy of language is a rare art; to say what is required both concisely and clearly is, for me, the crux of what is true in writing.  Capturing essence is the difference between a story to be cast aside upon completion and one that stays inside a person's mind - that spreads out, grows and changes the way we see the world and ourselves.  Harper Lee has certainly accomplished all these things.

Much has been written about this book by many people far more insightful and greater than I; I will not try to replicate or expand upon their work here.  This seemed like a proper place to begin this "catablog".  Now I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I am glad for it.