Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy - Jane Leavy

More than just a biography of arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, Jane Leavy's work chronicles baseball as it moved into the modern game we have come to recognize. Koufax, because of his contract holdout with fellow Dodger Don Drysdale, may have played no small part in the coming age of free agency baseball, but what seems more pertinent to Koufax's career, particularly in contrast to the manner in which players are handled today, is how he was brought into the Dodger organization and how he was used early in his career. In essence, Koufax, like many other players, was left to develop and fend for himself. When revisiting his career it is important to note that Koufax was absolutely dominant for five years, but prior to that he was considered erratic at best.

And then he was gone. Inextricable from the Koufax myth is the manner in which he walked away from the game, at the peak of his powers, something virtually unprecedented at the time. Stripping away the myth, Leavy reveals the increasing levels of pain Koufax was dealing with in his left elbow and his almost super-human efforts to make every start the last two years of his career. That he was able to do so while compiling perhaps the two greatest years ever put together by a pitcher is a feat that, simply given the care with which multi-million dollar athletes are no handled, will probably not be replicated in our lifetime.

That Koufax was a great is unassailable, that his peak was all-too-short seems a bit tragic (in the classical sense of the word), that his legend continues to grow only redounds to the place of baseball, and indeed sports in general in the American psyche. Famous before sports and celebrity became entirely intertwined, Koufax was among the first generation of athletic superstars. Yet he continues to shrink away from the spotlight. One gets the sense from Leavy's book that Koufax would have been much happier to go about his work and let his on-the-field efforts have the last word. This is not to intimate that he was taciturn or closed-off, rather he remains unwilling to play the role of public commodity, and indeed sees little reason why it should be expected of him. At a time when many athletes strive to become "global brands" Koufax remains, largely because of his seeming elusiveness, to grow in our mythology. By refusing to submit himself to public ownership he has become something much bigger, a living legend.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Truman - David McCullough

When Mother Wallace, Harry Truman's mother-in-law, was invited to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom by the newly ascended President, her response was purported to be, "I'd rather sleep on the floor." Born in 1854, Mrs. Wallace was a proud daughter of the confederacy. A woman who had seen perhaps the greatest century of technological and civilized change in the world's history it was no surprise to Truman or his wife that Mrs. Wallace retained some of her olden time sensibilities and even prejudices.

Harry S Truman ascended to the Presidency in perhaps the most formative years of America's role on the world stage.Within the first four months of his residency in the White House, victory would be declared in Europe, Truman would travel to Potsdam to meet with Prime Minister Churchill and Generalissimo Stalin to discuss the eventual dividing of war-ravaged Europe, and, supported almost unanimously by his advisers, Truman would execute the orders to drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war with Japan. That these four months could be handled with such grace, determination and care by a man who may have been uniquely unqualified to the office of the President may be perhaps the greatest testament to the strength of the American political system; it certainly resounds to the credit of Harry Truman.

David McCullough's biography of the 33rd President - a title Truman hated, claiming that counting Cleveland twice was simply asinine - traces the roots and path of a man born to a world very different from the one he would have to steer in the years following World War II. A child of the plains of Missouri, as a young man Truman's ambitions scarcely surpassed those of being a local alderman. McCullough's biography traces the almost accidental nature of Truman's political career. His seemingly untainted rise through the powerful Pendergast political machine, his barnstorming senate election campaign and his seemingly incidental choice as FDR's Vice President in 1944 almost seem to convey a man who was simply lucky to be a man of character, in the right place at the right time.

Yet that he was a man of exceeding character is without question. If McCullough's biography has a glaring shortcoming it is his insistent focus on the doings and character of Truman himself, often giving short-shrift to the complexities of issues which Truman was forced to wrestle with. Yet with this singular focus the reader emerges with a view of what we would term a "late-bloomer" but of a man whose dogged determination, hard work and total dedication to ensure that government remain an instrument of the people saw him through to the highest office in the land. While perhaps a man born to another time, Truman's conviction that government existed primarily to guarantee the welfare, liberty and self-determination of the individual transcended the coming of a new technological and world order. Though he may have seen out of place sitting and the table with Stalin and Churchill, or hopelessly naive in the corridors of Washington, Truman's perseverance, drive and commitment to governance, not just within the borders of the United States, but internationally as America would become a greater player on the world stage, helped see the country and indeed the world out of the era of war and into the second half of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid takes us through the many adventures, wonders and worries about that unique and oftentimes terrifying experience of negotiating childhood. With a flair for hyperbole and a wonderful eye for character, Bill Bryson takes us down the streets and fields of Iowa, where humor and even excitement can be found in the everyday. Though many of his stories shimmer in the details, it is the category of experience that he has uncovered which makes this memoir so enjoyable, and, at times, downright hilarious.

As myself a product of the American midwest the spirit of Bryson's work resonates strongly with many of my own formative experiences. The annual pilgrimage to the State Fair, storm-systems that move in across the plains, concoctions of "chemistry" experiments to amuse friends and terrify siblings, all of these were no-less important thirty years later. Being of midwestern extraction means being formed in a certain way, and having a particular take on the world that, as we grow older, we find never leaves us. Bryson captures this indefinable quality admirably.

Growing up during the 1950s, Bryson recounts an American past, and, he would argue, long gone. In addition to being a memoir this work is a lament, at times even a dirge, for ways of living and organizing lives and livelihoods that seem to have disappeared. While the fifties were arguably the greatest of height of American prosperity - albeit for Bryson's admitted midwestern, white, well-off background - the end of the decade would see a rise in consumption and subsequent necessity of working harder. With the birth of franchising and the shrinking of the world through communication and transportation, Des Moines, like many other middle American cities, would come to resemble every other place between the coasts in many ways. This gives Bryson's nostalgia an air of sadness and forces us to wonder at questions addressing what we hope for out of this life? While Bryson's particular childhood could never have transpired anywhere else, the larger concern is that, with the potential death of place-rootedness, we will lose something of the formative aspects of our character. When everywhere is the same how are we to know what it means to belong anywhere?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzche

One of the greatest works of philosophy since the Enlightenment, Nietzche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is at once lighthearted and dark, simple and endlessly complex, subtle and obvious. I offer no pretense that I understood 1/10 of what is most likely actually going on - Nietzche's subtitle hints at his works opacity: a book for all and none. Nietzche's work is often cloaked in the long history of religion and philosophy, at times he is clearly answering others while at other times thinking only on his own. That the work combines  the bare-bones approaches of many eastern philosophical tales with the highest longings of western philosophers does little to help the reader make sense of all that is going on.

Having said all that, the work is certainly a classic, infectiously easy to read and thoroughly thought-provoking and enjoyable. Set against our modern times Nietzsche is saying nothing terribly novel, set against his predecessors he is saying much indeed. Removing man's best spirit from the immortal world beyond - take that Plato - Nietzsche finds his greatest world all around him. Separating aspects of the spirit from the "I" (or transcendental ego) Zarathustra, the protagonist and subject of this bildungsroman, refuses to separate the good life from the world he inhabits. For him this means a retreat from the maddening crowd of the marketplace, to spaces of seclusion and thought. His goal is to find his own place within the eternal recurrence of time and truly understand the ensnaredness, the entangledness of all things. Zarathustra claims that, at least for him, this is impossible in society, as he is greatly weighed down by the leveling proclivities of men - what he calls gravity.

Much of what Zarathustra finds to be crucial to his happiness could read as a very eastern rebuttal to western philosophy.

"Everything goes, everything returns; the wheel of being rolls eternally. Everything dies, everything blossoms forth again, the year of being runs eternally."

This can be read in Zarathustra's constant searching, and the sense that the path itself, or the world, is really where the journey's value lies. While much of this may seem like half-baked philosophizing, the reason that such ideas gained a foothold in the western world is precisely because of Nietzche's work. In effect we are seeing the original upon which much of twentieth century western philosophy would build itself. Moving the world of western men away from lofty goals of another plane, and doing away with rigid ideologies that are meant to guide everyone without recourse to circumstance, Nietzche's thought, redefines our relationship to  the society around us. Have we truly grappled with the questions Nietzche posits? To what extent have we envisioned a philosophy for each of us?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rome: The Book of Foundations - Michel Serres

Returning to the possibility that history and myth are less differentiated than we might assume, Michel Serres examines upon what foundations our own history is built. The singularities that get chosen among the vast potential multiplicities that could be brought into an historical narrative, are, for Serres, built on corpses and deaths, for the prizing of any point of view is the simultaneous ignoring of other possibilities. History is, for Serres, at its heart a continual tension between the single and the multiple. It is the recurrence between the two, and the violence of each upon the other that has made the event differentiated from that which precedes it.

To make clear this passage between the single and the multiple, Serres revisits the founding of Rome and the tangled uncertainty surrounding how the greatest of cities arose from the swamps and the River Tiber. Using Livy as his primary source, Serres traces the birth of Rome through the travels of Aeneas and back to the Trojan War. He brings along Romulus and Remus and the latter's death at the hands of the former. We also see Hercules investigating stolen cattle, the sack of Alba and regicide of Romulus. All of these together, and none of them in isolation, are the stories of the origin of Rome. Serres tells us that foundations are built upon destruction, the destruction of rulers or mobs, what we would call progress and the ordering of confused multitudes. The tension between harmony and noise, amalgam and melange, and singularities and multiplicities are what Serres hopes to uncover. In his trademark way, he is successful.

Unreconciled history is for Serres a wobble, a series of fits and starts. This is why Rome deserves many myths/histories of its foundations. These wobbles of difference and movements in differing, often contradictory directions, are replaced by the stability of history. Yet, when the wobbles are ignored in favor of relatability of a singular history then certainly something is lost; this is as familiar as the dictum "history is written by the winners." Michel Serres has written elsewhere and echoes the belief here that the violence of reason (two terms he would say are synonymous) straight-jackets and destroys the multiple; this is the first, and recurrent, tragedy. He answers this tragedy with an attempt to understand the ebb and flow of multitudes; how whatever arises does so only when the possibility of the multiple is allowed. Indeed, without the multiple there could never be a singular arising. An awareness that such is the case is crucial if we are to not only situate ourselves within history, but if we are to move forward in a manner that favors the potentiality of the multiple - not always sacrificing it to the logic of the singular.

"Behind history, behind tragedy is the distribution of multiplicities. Sandbanks, turbulences, a mob, a crowd, a harvest we have lost account of." p. 246

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gang Leader For A Day - Sudhir Venkatesh

When Sudhir Venkatesh set out to begin his sociology research on the economics of urban poverty at the University of Chicago he could not have known that his embedded work would cross all the lines of academic objectivity and bring him deeply into the lives and dealings of his subjects. Rather than being his work's flaw, Venkatesh's involvement in the  world of the Robert Taylor housing project uncovers not only the economics of urban poverty, but also a divergent, and all-too-invisible world to much of American society. Predictably Venkatesh's experiences open his eyes to many of his own, and society's, misconstrued understandings about what it means to be poor in America.

Gang Leader For A Day is at its most powerful when Venkatesh pushes himself and the reader beyond comfortable assumptions unchallenged in mainstream society. That this book can at times feel so revealing is the strongest testament to America's willful ignorance and tacit - and sometimes overt - paternalistic attitudes towards people who live in poverty, particularly black Americans. That Venkatesh's work is so novel is perhaps the greatest indictment of a political and economic system that does little more than pay lip-service to ensuring equality and fair opportunity for the less fortunate. In its pages we learn the stories of people who are not only ignored by the system, but often have to work against it to ensure their family's survival. In chronicling the continual hustle of people who need to rely on every resource at their disposal to get along, Venkatesh forces any thoughtful and comfortable reader to challenge their assumptions about where our society places value and what we expect of ourselves and others in our attempts to live the good life.

Though meandering at times, Gang Leader For A Day, makes a strong case for a re-examination, not only of the politics and economics of poverty in America, but about our society's willingness to ignore the lives of people who live alongside us every single day. Contentedly drawing a picture of American life that discredits the experience of any people is something we have always done, Venkatesh reminds us that for as long as books like his seem a revelation, we do it still.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Journey of Crazy Horse - Joseph Marshall III

Striving to communicate the man often obscured by the legend of uncertain history, Joseph Marshall III's biography of Crazy Horse draws upon the oral histories of the Lakota in the hopes of teaching us all more about his ways and life. Central to Marshall's writing is the belief that Crazy Horse was no more or less of a man than anyone else, and that the values and actions he demonstrated are no less relevant today than they were on the plains of the 19th century.

Crazy Horse's life was at once blessed and cursed. A man rooted deeply in the ways of his parents and ancestors, a strong and loyal Lakota, he was nonetheless fated to face perhaps insurmountable odds and witness the destruction of his people's way of life. Though he provided an example for those with eyes to see, not enough Lakota or whites would follow in his footsteps - the decisions and blindness of that time is a legacy that the United States will never fully escape.

Yet Crazy Horse remains in our consciousness as though a bolt of lightning that has once split the sky. Brilliant and luminescent it was tragically an all-too-brief radiance imprinted upon our collective consciousness. Yet if we take the time to reflect upon that brilliance there is much to learn about the world, the way to live, and ourselves. Such lives can be a gift to all people - if we are ready to accept it. Crazy Horse was a far from perfect man, and perhaps he helped to lead his people to their demise. We will never know if, had he acted differently, things would have been different for his people. But if he were perfect his life would have nothing to teach us. That he was flawed and all-too-human remains his greatest gift, not only to the Lakota, but to us all. That we may each walk in his ways is blessing. As he is remembered, his journey begins anew.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Gulag Archipelago I & II - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"Do not pursue what is illusory - property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life - don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart - and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well."

While the Soviet Era has ended and the Gulags and repressive regimes have been - ostensibly - dissolved, what Solzhenitsyn has left us with are questions about our own humanity and how societies get to a place where the people are seen as their own worst enemy. The first two parts of the The Gulag Archipelago trace the manner in which the Soviet Union grew its police state following the Russian Revolution and throughout Stalin's rule; how laws were passed to systematically limit dissension and control the populous through unapologetic policies of terror. For someone who has a limited knowledge of Russian history much of the historical aspects were obtuse and required a better background than I had. What these details serve to illuminate is the sheer mass of people whose lives were ended - both figuratively and literally - by the seemingly schizophrenic policies and practices of the Soviet rulers and police state to ensure a continued hold on power. Using the metaphor of a sewer system Solzhenitsyn leads us to wonder if the Russian state could have survived as long as it did without employing such vast numbers of the population in the prison system and without extracting essentially free labor from millions of its own citizens.

Where the work shines is in Solzhenitsyn's focus on the details of prison life. From arrest through incarceration the writing gives the necessary human touches so that the reader can easily place themselves within the prison walls and wonder at their own humanity. I could not help but wonder not only how I would have acted as prisoner, but also as a guard or citizen in such a regime of terror. Once this projection takes place it is hard to believe that Russian citizens were any more or less human than ourselves and wonder at our own capacities. Would each of us be a political prisoner? An interrogator? A guard? A caring bystander who forwards mail? Or a thief abusing, raping and taking advantage of his fellow prisoner? As difficult as such questions are they are nonetheless crucial as we each puzzle over our own humanity and what it means to be human and humane to those around us.

Monday, October 31, 2011

God: A Biography - Jack Miles

What makes God god-like? What sort of "person" is God? Examining the Tanakh, Jack Miles sets out to create an analysis of the text's central character as a literary protagonist. For Miles the Tanakh - what most westerners would call the Old Testament - is really a story about how God has created and come to interact with the world. Tracing the "life" of this protagonist Miles compelling illuminates not only the story of the Tanakh, but the evolution of the character of God.

Though it may seem an obvious observation, the central aspect of God is that he - and yes the Tanakh is relatively unambiguous about his gender - is alone. There are no other deities with which God has divine adventures nor anything except his own creation to reflect his personage. That we may feel conflicted about God's unity - is this same character not our heavenly father, the destroyer of Pharaoh's armies and the comforter of the sick and afflicted? - reveals the tensions on display in the God of the Tanakh. He is, of course, all of these things, but that only raises the question of how any character who is seemingly so contradictory is able to sustain any measure of cohesion? By making God a character riven by his own multiplicity the Tanakh, Miles writes, takes the form of a great character drama. In essence the reader is always referring every action back to its relationship to God and wondering at his actions, or lack of actions given any situation. With only mankind to expose this characters life, the biography of God thus becomes a story about people's relationship to him. If God strikes us as of differing personages it is because he has been revealed in his relationship to people to play many roles.

As the Bible is the central literary piece of all western civilization, the God of the Bible is our most central, and perhaps our most difficult, character. For believers and non-believers alike, the western referent known as God remains he who it is written created Adam and Eve, destroyed the world in a flood, spoke to Moses on the mountain, brought King David to great power and was confronted by Job in the whirlwind. That these events may or may not have happened is both the province of history and articles of faith. What is inescapable is that the writers of the Tanakh have cast this character across the western world and whether we "believe" or not, his personality infuses our lives. That this personality is complex, multiple, often frustrating and seemingly obtuse is part of the growth and life of God within the Tanakh. It is because of the central role of this work of literature that God also becomes inescapable. Thus our lives exist in the shadow of one main protagonist  who is divided and wrestling with himself.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Dharma Bums - Jack Kerouac

Further adventures of life on the road with Kerouac, The Dharma Bums recounts the narrators - Kerouac thinly veiled as Ray Smith - travels and, minor, travails across the front roads and backcountry of America (with some Mexico thrown in). Throughout Kerouac and his companions - most  notably Japhy Ryder/Gary Snyder - hike the mountains of the Sierra, meditate in the backwoods of North Carolina, and sleep in the desert of Arizona all while contemplating the great undifferentiated aesthetic continuum proposed by the mystics of Buddhism.

Primarily the work speaks to a re-investigation of what we consider to be necessary versus what we deem to be sufficient. Kerouac and his fellow dharma bums are in search of the enlightening potentials of raw experience, in the hopes that they may change themselves, and by extension the world. By casting off the extraneous aspects of existence these young, almost entirely male and white, Americans hope to get at the root of what is important in this life. Certainly a laudable, if not sometimes seemingly self-centered, goal.

It is to the great credit of The Dharma Bums that, ostensibly, not much happens within the story. In this way Kerouac conveys that it is the cultivation of a state of mind over the external circumstance that is his purpose. The clarity with which he conveys his realizations - which appear oftentimes fully-formed - and the manner in which he romanticizes certain strains of the life, makes it small wonder that two-plus generation of young men (and to some extent women) have turned to Keruoac's work as part of the American gospel of the sojourner . This is not to denigrate the feelings that Kerouac gives voice too. In some very disconcerting ways The Dharma Bums reads entirely contemporary, with only the question of whether America is a free enough place to consciously cat off into its own lost places in search of something we think no longer exists.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Meeting of East and West: an inquiry concerning world understanding - F.S.C. Northrup

An overview of the major philosophical considerations forming the foundations of Eastern and Western cultures, F.S.C. Northrup's The Meeting of East and West is an erudite, yet concise and approachable synthesis of the ideas that drive our modern world. Written following the close of World War II, though the work's areas of focus may have changed were it to be written today, its analysis has lost none of its punch.

For Northrup, that which drives cultures can largely be found in their intellectual and conceptual roots, whether the populace writ large could give voice to them or not. Contrasting the empiricism of the differentiated West from the more intuitive, aesthetic continuity of the Orient, Northrup provides moving and convincing overviews able to at once encompass the intellectual difficulties of Locke, the antithetical issues of Marx and the seemingly paradoxical, yet wonderfully explanatory aspects of differentiation and continuity of the Tao or Chit - which he identifies as one in the same. It is no mean feat to be able to explain Hegel's work, let-alone the intellectual legacy he created that was transformed by Kant and Fichte. Northrup not only achieves this, but ties it to German aspects of the good and the state.

The scope that Northrup apprehends is, simply put, staggering. At its conclusion The Meeting of East and West offers its own synthesis of Western and Easter thought in the hopes that we may have a world in which we can understand and positively interact with one another. Whether or not we can achieve the task which Northrup puts us to remains, obviously, unanswered. Certainly his work is an important step to understanding where we fit into the world around us. Northrup's work stimulated my interest at every turn and will drive me to further reading. I cannot remember the last time I finished a work and immediately thought that I should start it again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Michel Serres - The Troubadour of Knowledge

The closest thing we may get to a pedagogy from French philosopher Michel Serres, The Troubadour of Knowledge aims to describe what Serres calls "the Instructed Third." Variously thought of as a renaissance man, or all-arounder (a person in the vein of Odysseus), Serres' Instructed Third represents a meeting point of learned and novice; someone who willingly crosses over between the familiar and the novel, finding at that moment of transition a point that is at once an arrival and a departure.

 This call is inseparable from his philosophies of multiplicity - that hard and fast definitions of things produce inevitable violence and close-off possibilities. All around us Serres sees an all-encompassing rationality that cannot but lead to violence; by choosing a world in which we must know everything we have traded in trivia for wisdom. Serres calls for the re-emergence of a willing human weakness in the face of destructive strength. For Serres it is crucial that we are people of multiplicity, of equi-valence.

 To be all these things Serres says we must rend ourselves from what is easy and simple. Many great departures will lead a person to be at home in the world; to swim currents instead of resisting them. At once comfortable in the science or the humanities, within the towering edifices of academia or roughing it in the mountains, Serres is looking for people who will pave their own way beyond the expected. Central to his philosophy is the notion that  the world is a patchwork of multiplicity - and if we are to live within it, we too must cultivated our multiple natures. As such both people and the world must be allowed to exist in a state in which multiplicity is nurtured, rather than sacrificed to categorization. Rather than domination, Serres is looking for the wisdom of flexibility and adequacy; for we as a people to learn to make room, to allow ourselves and the world to be multiple.

Monday, September 19, 2011

H.D.F. Kitto - The Greeks

An overview of Classical Greece - from roughly 500 bce to 350 bce - H. D.F. Kitto's The Greeks, provides the modern reader with a proper context to understand our inheritance of, and differences from the world of the Athenian polis. Crucial to Kitto's analysis is the understanding of all Greek citizens as men of numerous abilities and balance, great all-arounders. Throughout his life an Athenian citizen could expect to be called on to serve in the military, engage in political life, and more likely than not political office, in the polis, farm and engage in certain manners of trade. In contrast to our society of experts, it was one of the Greeks great sources of pride (except the Spartans) that armies served at a moments notice and that all men could be called on very most any role in public life.

Kitto relies on two crucial aspects to illuminate his argument: that of the polis and of arete. Frequently translated as city-state, the polis can be more adequately conceived of as community/political arena/social sphere/ state/organizing principle/and ideal of aspiration for each citizen. Whereas our society can be conceived of as an agglomeration of individuals, Athens is rightly thought of as an assembly of heads of families who owed their first loyalty to this all-encompassing sphere of the polis.  It was at once where he sought his entertainment, where he paid his taxes, to whom he levied complaints and to which he was expected to serve. Contrary to perhaps feeling overburdened by such an ideal, Kitto tells us that citizens in Classical Greece drew strength and wisdom from this public sphere. In this way their life appears seamlessly integrated.
Driving the Greek ideal, and handed down from Homer, was the notion of arete, or what we straight-jacket as virtue. Rather, Kitto writes, it is best to think of it as excellence in all things, and as duty, though duty conceived towards being the best for oneself, rather than for the sake of others. Heroes of the Homeric age were, such as Hector or Achilles, were thought of as men of surpassing arete; men of excellence in all things. Such a notion ties in to the ideal of the all-arounder, a man who could do best for himself in all ways and thus be the best kind of citizen for the polis.
Kitto succinctly brings these and many other realms of Classical Greek life together in a book that accomplishes a great depth of understanding in the reader for such a slim amount of prose.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

This is, I believe, the fourth time I have read Pirsig's famous work. This, in and of itself, is a bit of an admission. For some reason, the association ZAMM has with a sort-of soft-headed way of thinking about the world (which a find entirely undeserved), compounded with its ubiquity, makes any reference to it within certain circles guaranteed to emit groans and eye-rolls. With that in mind I often feel the need to defend the work more than is probably warranted. Thus I will stick to this: having read it numerous times, I can comfortably say that each time I recognize some new aspect that I had heretofore glossed over. Each new discovery deepens the experience of the work and perhaps this is the highest compliment literature can receive.

When I re-read ZAMM it is usually with a specific purpose in mind. This time I was in the throes of writing an extended paper on the relationship between science, society and the non-human world and specifically wanted to get an infusion of a certain type of rhetoric. What I had, apparently, forgotten, is that the entire work is specifically a treatise of and concerning rhetoric. What jumped out at me more clearly this time were notions of the rhetoritician as someone equipped to deal with the world and even him or herself. When Pirsig describes piece of mind, or that idea that, in the end the cycle you are working on is called yourself, he is talking about the ability to nurture points of view and thus ways of living.

Though the work was ostensibly born out of a the dissatisfaction of spirit with a certain time, it has lost none of its immediacy and relevance. Perhaps because the ideas put forward rest at the intersection between the good life of an individual and society it may never lose this immediacy: by situating his concerns in a depth of history Pirsig ensures that we can see the connections of our life and his.

If nothing else the book always stirs reflection, and, for those so inclined, this reflection pierces quite deeply into aspects seen as central to how we live our lives. Unquestionably Pirsig's work has, and continues to, motivate and stir me. Its re-reading has given it the added feeling of an old friend, one that is of a decidedly impeccable quality.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West - William Cronon

Nature’s Metropolis demonstrates the relationship between the rise of Chicago and the transformation of the geography and resources which compose its “hinterland.” William Cronon has exhaustively researched and provided a cogent and fluid retelling of Chicago's meteoric rise to national and international prominence. For Cronon, the story of the city's growth rests at the intersection of what he calls first and second natures - being the difference between the resources and geography of the natural world and the manner in which humans build economies of scale and infrastructure to funnel people, resources, and capital towards certain locations and away from others.

With the construction of the railroads, Chicago became the crossroads where the "Great West" met the consumer markets of the East Coast. Coming from the West, Chicago would be the organizing port-of-call for wheat, timber, and livestock to be shipped eastward and even to Europe. In return, these markets redistributed the goods desired by urban and hinterland inhabitants; resources supporting the good and civilized life in the country as well as the city. The urban meeting point, and the crucial economies of scale it fostered, meant that Chicago merchants profited immensely from the volume of wealth passing through the city daily. Key to such capital flows was the further growth of the city's infrastructure, which further concentrated wealth and resources along the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Cronon has accomplished a difficult task in tying the growth of the city to the hinterland and making a clear argument that city and country must be understood together. The economies of second nature are overlain upon first nature and transform organisms into resources. All of these flow across the landscape, interacting via the market and with one another to transform the Great West into the urban hinterland.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Reassembling the Social - Bruno Latour

Picking apart exactly what he sees wrong with the modern state of sociology, Bruno Latour gives what he considers to be a basic, though still feeling comprehensive, introduction to actor-network theory. Animated by what Latour sees as sociology's reliances on a pre-assembled social sphere, Latour argues that if we assume such a sphere we have already lost the project of sociology. Rather he emphasizes what he terms a sociology of associations, or a picking apart of the manners in which things (this is an important aspect) interact with one another.

Broadening the scope of sociology beyond the strictly human, Latour ensures us that any proper understanding of human interactions requires an incorporation of non-human actors. He sees all associations as being mediated by and flowing through things, and thus a sociology that ignores such actors can always fail at its task to construct the social. Rather, any society (being an understanding of a pre-formed social sphere) will always resist unpacking and understanding. It is by looking not at the smooth flows, but rather at the locations of controversy, that make clear to us what the story of interactions is saying.

Because locations of controversy are the driver of history Latour has a, perhaps very alternative, view of realities. For him it is not difference and instability that requires explanation, but rather stability and continuity that is need of a sociology so that we may understand how different entities have come to be associated with one another. Latour would have us believe that all things are, themselves, actor-networks, and that they are thus an agglomeration of different entities. There is no apparent reason, at the outset, why any two (or three or four) entities ought to become associated with one another. Rather, it is through work and effort that articulations between such entities occur and it is within the scope of such relationships that a choice is made amongst their multiple handles to associate with one another. Two entities cannot but engage in controversy (otherwise they have no meaningful difference and are not worthy subjects of sociology) because they themselves are actor-networks, each with their own host of realities. It is by articulating with one another that they become associated and a veneer of stability of relationships can take form. Latour would have us believe that too much of the "sociology of the social" assumes such relationships and therefore cannot have anything meaningful to say about the social sphere. A pre-formed society preceding sociological inquiry can never grant unique insight into what is occurring in the world. If we assume society we cannot have a sociology; Latour takes this seeming paradox and gives it legs.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Leviathan and the Air-Pump - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer

Examining the very public disputes between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle over the value of experimental knowledge and the relationship between knowledge creation and the social sphere, Shapin and Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump traces the experimental sciences in their infancy, and draws a strikingly modern portrayal over concerns surrounding the manner by which we create facts. Focusing on the experiments of Robert Boyle's air-pump in Restoration England, the book gives free reign to the work of these two and the inter-weaving concerns of politics and science in the nascent Age of Reason.

Of crucial importance to philosophers' disagreements was the role of the social sphere and consensus in the creation of facts. Boyle claimed that the consensus of the experimental community occurred in a public, yet controlled, sphere that allowed for witness, replication and healthy debate. It was in this sphere that experiments could be witnessed and nurtured from the tenuous realm of supposition into the world of settled fact. For Hobbes, all knowledge was dependent upon the work put in to garnering it and was inextricably linked to the political and social realms. Any attempt to address problems of knowledge meant addressing problems of the social order, because the Leviathan - ordered society - could not escape the shadow of conflict, which sprang from disagreement. Living in the shadow of an English civil war both men and indeed much of the populace, was aware of concerns surrounding potential areas of conflict, thus, questions of experimental/scientific knowledge, religion and the social order were all of a piece. This made disagreements that much more acrimonious.

Though Boyle's scientific positions seemed to triumph Shapin and Schaffer eventually give Hobbes his due credit. Whereas Boyle believed that, given the proper circumstances, men could witness and dispassionately rule on the natural world, Hobbes saw that any knowledge creation could never be fully separated from the social/political circumstances of its creation or the work required for coming-into-being.

"The form of life in which we make our scientific knowledge will stand or fall with the way we order our affairs in the state." p. 344

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cloudsplitter - Russell Banks

An epic fictionalization of the life of America's most famous abolitionist John Brown, as related by his last remaining son Owen Brown at the turn of the twentieth century, Cloudsplitter takes us through the back roads and into the cities of the northern United States in the decades preceding the Civil War. Russell Banks has researched thoroughly and related diligently the events and climate that would bring John Brown and his loyal followers, first to Osawatomie and then into the heart of confederate Virginia and Harper's Ferry. But that is much later, at its heart  Banks' work follows the younger Brown from his childhood, through the development of relationship to his father, and casts a sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible eye on every man and woman's relationship to the institution of American slavery. Throughout we see Owen Brown wrestle in the shadow of his father's faith and conviction towards bringing an end to slavery. John Brown's convictions, his absolute faith in his relationship to God, and total commitment to abolitionism dominate every aspect of the life of Owen, his brothers and sisters, and indeed, every one Brown comes into contact with. We are left with impression that, without Brown's total commitment and willingness to sacrifice, coupled with his son's willingness to bush violence past the brink, American history would have developed very differently.

Among the many powerful themes of the work, Banks paints a portrait of American's relationships, within and across racial lines, that feels strikingly relevant. Though Owen Brown has committed his life to ending slavery, even as he struggles on the underground railroad, moving escaped slaves to Canada, he cannot escape his inability to deal equitably with black Americans. Wrestling with his faithlessness and inability to love blacks purely, Owen becomes and will remain consumed by his own failings, eventually to live out his days as a shade and wraith of the deeds of his youth. Constantly judging his own shortcomings and failings in the awesome and horrible light of his father's grandeur and certainty regarding his own and all peoples' roles and responsibilities in this life, Owen too often finds himself wanting where he deems it most important. It is the wrestling between Owen and his father, cast in biblical proportions, that is hammered home. A smaller, yet deeply personal tragedy in a tale that will only leave the reader searching for simple answers.

Engaging closely with Russell Bank's great work, one cannot help but question his own moral compass, and to what extent we are all willing to dedicate and sacrifice for what is right? We at once run from the person we are, and towards the person we are trying to become, at times stumbling along the way or even turning aside. For some, the race is won and we come to a place of peace within ourselves and with the world around us. But likewise, this struggle is not always a victory and many times those decisions are written in the stars beyond our control. John Brown remains one of America's most complex and controversial figures: at once liberty's strongest warrior and a slaughterer of men. His story reminds us that heroes and villains are rarely clearly either. Perhaps we can say that even the best of us contain a bit of both.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 - Taylor Branch

Part two in Taylor Branch's three-part opus on the American Civil Rights Movement, Pillar of Fire details the rise of the nation of Islam and the first years of President Johnson's term up to the assassination of Malcolm X. Starting in the oldest of American cities, St. Augustine, Florida, Branch's work ably brings together the disparate elements of the Civil Rights Movement as it burgeoned beyond the March of Washington and spread past the bounds of the SNCC, the SCLC and the NAACP. Throughout the work Branch gives the reader a sense that, at times, the movement was surpassing the abilities of even King, Elijah Muhammad, Bob Moses and Ralph Abernathy to control. Additionally, as President Kennedy exits the scene, struck down by an assassin's bullet, newly sworn-in President Johnson brings his energies and passions to bear on a Voting Rights and Civil Rights Bill.

Not as unified as his first work, Pillar of Fire nevertheless traces the uncertainty and power of the middle and crucial years of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King has moved beyond being simply a famous preacher and become an institution in and of himself: we see him and those around him beset on all sides by the trappings of fame and prestige. Branch ably characterizes the strengths and flaws of the movement and its people, reminding us that though they may have not been perfect, the generation of leaders and unnamed Americans who ushered in a new age, were something much more resonant, they were human.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Genesis - Michel Serres

"The multiple is the object of this book and history is its goal." p. 7

Another slim work from French philosopher Michel Serres, this one examines the manner in which things, namely time and history, come into being. In under 140-pages Serres is able to make a nuanced, complex and convincing argument for the relationship between what he calls noise and the manner in which the world flows around us. Serres compares our existence to being immersed in a sea that we willfully, and often at our own peril, ignore in the hopes of clarity surrounding concepts, sciences and relationships. What we call information and phenomena, we willfully separate from the background noise of existence and attempt to treat as if these things exist in and of themselves, when really this separation comes at the end of many long and intensive human labors.

Central to this work is an understanding that what we treat as clear and bounded entities - purities - are really turbulences of redundancy and uniqueness. Were things to be all redundancy and no difference, then there would be no uniqueness and thus no passage of time. Were things all unique with no redundancy then any passage would be meaningless as we would be caught only in an unrelated series of moments. Thus we exist between two poles, in a messy world that we gather under named concepts and entities. What Serres calls ichnographs, are agglomerations that are treated as multiplicities and not straight-jacketed into monisms. This is like accepting that numerous things make up the ocean, and that treating it as a single unit is a form of rational violence of simplification. By dealing with phenomena as multiplicities, we can maximize possibility and  limit the violence of simplification.

For Serres the turbulence of noise forces the meandering and displacement that creates history. Classifying things, straight-jacketing them, slows down turbulences and effects the impacts of relationships. The less things are able to meander beyond their status, the less they interact in novel ways, thus, the less history there is. Serres sees history itself as born out of the soup of noise, of turbulences, of the mixed-up ocean of things. By allowing for multiplicity we allow for unknowns, not only in our own lives, but also in the things around us. It is the ability of these multiplicities to circulate in all their mixed-upness that gives birth to the world.

"History is not born of provinces, but of circumstances." p. 100

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

King Solomon's Mines - H. Rider Haggard

An adventure story of the highest order, H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mine takes the reader to the interior of mythical darkest Africa. Looking for the wayward brother of Sir Henry, Capt. Good and Allan Quartermain venture beyond mountains, across deserts and into tribal warfare. Along the way they encounter frozen corpses, witches, and ancient treasure maps - the tale encompasses every lost world, grand adventure trope the reader could hope for.

Sparely written, the book moves through a host of experiences but keeps the reader engaged alone the way and gives the impression that you are there every step of the way. Though this is not high literature in any regard, it is also more than just a little racist, the craft of the tale is fairly unimpeachable. Writing clearly, with complexity and excitement is not a series of skills to be overlooked. Haggard has accomplished these things and I will look forward to read another of his adventure stories when the mood strikes me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

We Have Never Been Modern - Bruno Latour

A slim volume and perhaps Latour's most prescient work, We Have Never Been Modern examines what Latour terms the "modernist settlement" and the relationships of nature and culture and our own western culture to that of the "others" who exist in contrast to it. Latour's argument rests on the position that modernism as generally defined remains largely misinterpreted and that a thorough examination breaks down the supposed differences between our present and past, and the West with other "less advanced" cultures. In essence modernism rests on the twin movements of purification - that nature and culture become more separable from each other as we move towards a more perfect modernity - and of translation - that we simultaneously create hybrids of nature and culture that extend our networks of influence. This double movement is crucial for, as Latour sees it, it allows moderns to at once claim unique access to knowledge of the world "as it really is" while also mobilizing this knowledge in ways that transcend normal politics and social measure.

As the title suggests, Latour argues that there is no distinction of kind between western culture and others, rather one of scope, scale and pretension. Latour coherently crafts an argument for why such is the case - his theoretical work on networks and events, if nothing else, can provide interesting brain fodder for numerous disciplines - and how our actual mediation as a part of the world opens avenues for new analysis and potentialities for new politics. By suggesting a new nature-culture "Constitution" Latour attempts to provide an at once commonsensical - once you understand his logic - and novel understanding for the ways that phenomena, whether they be humans or non-humans, technologies, sciences, concepts or locations, are connected and circulate among one another. Though seemingly complex and dense at first, We Have Never Been Modern provides a wonderful introduction to a powerful mind and one of the major movements of the modern philosophies of science and technology.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time - Michel Serres with Bruno Latour

Two of France's premier modern-day philosophers sit down so that we might better be able to understand one of them. Michel Serres is known for writing in a straight-forward and yet seemingly obtuse manner that leaves many (one should think including Bruno Latour) scratching their heads. This series of conversations is meant to trace Serres' intellectual and personal development in relation to his craft. Central to the books points are Serres' call for a re-understanding of the role of the Humanities as a complementary understanding to the sometimes blinding light of the sciences (he would say both natural and social). To get to the need for this reintegration the reader, serving somewhat as a fly on the wall, is brought along through Serres' biography, and how this informs his understanding of both our contemporary situation and how it relates to classical and modern scholarship.

Throughout, Latour performs admirably in trying to pin down the often difficult conceptualizations and intellectual jumps Serres is performing. Simultaneously Serres is allowed to speak for himself and really enunciate that which drives him and the role in to which he has cast himself. This self-styled, modern day Hermes (a title for two of his works) strikes us as most interested in enunciating relationships between seemingly disparate realms of knowledge and inquiry, in the hopes that we might continue to build the human adventure positively. This work seems most valuable in providing a baseline of understanding, or perhaps a spirit with which to better read Serres' work - which, despite his urging and pronouncements, is often difficult to pin down. Much as Serres often seems to construct a framework within which difference fluctuates, this work helps to bracket aspects of his thoughts so that the reader may come along with him as he traces networks and helps to illuminate the importance of pre-positions. Rather than trying to pin him down to place, we are better able to understand the roadmap he is building.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir - Donald Worster

Donald Worster, one of the preeminent modern voices of American conservation, has written a well-researched and at times insightful biography of the greatest voice in the history of American conservation - John Muir. Worster recounts Muir's roots in Scotland and forging in Wisconsin and tries to dig into Muir's intellectual development to better understand how and where his passion for the wild and untamed places developed and changed over the course of Muir's long and very active life.

As Muir moved across the states and eventually came to the hills of California, we see how his rambling and his faith forged a wilderness ethic through which he would come to view not only his relationship to the land, but also his relationship to the universe, to his work and to society. Worster does a wonderful job of grappling with these complexities and communicating that even for Muir, such questions of human's proper relationship to the natural world is never simple. One of the more revolutionary of Muir's ethos was that he extended morality to living biota beyond the narrow confines of human society: for Muir plants and animals were as worthy of care, notice and rights as any person.

Given that Muir's life revolved around wilderness, and that Worster is a historian by training, Worster treats the notion of wilderness in Muir's and the American mind in a surprisingly ahistorical manner. What Worster gives, at best, passing mention to, is that Muir and most Americans in the 19th century were experiencing "wild" landscapes that were very much a construction of their society and their predecessors. This is not to marginalize Muir's very real feelings about "big outside"and his foundational beliefs concerning divinity, however, as Worster tries to skip between 19th and 21st century morality, it is something that could have stood a bit of examination.

What Worster has accomplished is a fluid and easily consumable biography that gives a reader a better sense of Muir as a man and as a mind. Worster's call at the end, though a touch simplistic, is very appropriate: would that we could live out Muir's vision on Earth.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Islam: The Straight Path - John Esposito

With the death of Osama Bin Laden an awareness was reawakened within me that I know frightfully little about Islam. I have long meant to read a sort of introductory text on the faith and history of the Muslim people and I think John Esposito's work served that purpose quite well. Esposito gives a very basic - 250 pages, roughly - rundown of the history of Islam into the end of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most important thing he accomplishes is a cogent tying together of sectarian separations across time in Islam and how those continue to have very real implications for how people identify themselves and groups of Muslins interact.

Two takeaway points that I found particularly illuminating. First, because of where I grew up, Christianity is the baseline of comparison for how I conceive of religions. Thus I always analogized the Quran with the Bible. But that is not really true. If we think of the Bible as the foundation upon which Christianity is built, it is more accurate to say that the Quran is the house of Islam. The forced equivalency of the Bible and the Quran does a disservice to the role of the Quran. Second, because the Quran has a much stronger proscriptive history in Islam, much of what westerners see as conservativism is really a more public grappling with the intersections between western-style modernity and the role of morality in society. Certainly there is much wrestling among all people between morality and modernity, however, the western world likes to unfairly focus on the seeming disjuncture and clashes it has with Islam. Rather, we should turn the lens on ourselves and see what we cannot learn from any person who struggles to better understand their relationship to the world around them.

This provided me a much needed introduction to historical Islam and I will certainly follow this up with further reading.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cod - Mark Kurlansky

My second time reading Mark Kurlansky's pithy recounting of the role cod has played in the settling of the east coast of North America and how the market for it has developed since the 1500s. Its been a couple of years since I read it the first time and my impressions have not changed terribly much. Kurlansky recounts the discovery of the northern fishing grounds named the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland and how, with the changing of fishing technology and policy over the years, they have come to be drastically depleted. Indeed, he explores the trend of diminishing fishing stocks across much of the northern hemisphere.

Though a bit over-reaching and episodic, Kurlansky makes a cogent and moving case for people to rexamine our tacit and often stated assumption that nature is virtually inexhaustible and can recover from human exploitation. What Kurlansky unfortunately does not fully explore is the strain between trying to protect natural resources and the manner in which so many industries are tied up with notions of national identity and the ever-present need for governments to provide employment. The book is ably written and accomplishes a very tricky proposition, to introduce a complex problem to people who may have little to no acquaintance with it. Certainly a good introduction to the issue but often not enough information to fully satisfy.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 - Taylor Branch

Part one of Taylor Branch's three-part magnum opus, Parting the Waters is a dramatic and in-depth retelling of the rise of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Powerfully written, Branch's work brings the reader both to the front lines and into the back rooms of the years that would become the crucible of the American century. In Washington and globetrotting across the planet are Eisenhower, Robert and John Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. Yet government, Branch allows us to see, is so much more than elected officials. Here we can hear the story of John Doar, a white country lawyer from Wisconsin, and all that would bring him to Jackson, Mississippi to represent the Justice Department and quell an incipient riot following the assassination of Medgar Evers. Or, Sheriff Laurie Pritchett, who would try to forestall integration for years in Albany, Georgia.

Across the picket lines we see the political baptism of not only the Fred Shuttleworths, Diane Nash Bevels and Ralph Abernathys, but also of hundreds of thousands of nameless black (and white) Americans who would walk, ride, march, sit-in and stand-up to demand equal rights and justice for all Americans, regardless of race. By taking a broad sweep, yet maintaining crucial details, Branch brings to life the struggle and strife, the joys and pains and sometimes the abject horrors of that were an everyday reality for men and women demanding their rights across the south.

And, of course, their is King. At its core the work examines the life and times and rise of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the March on Washington and perhaps the most famous speech ever given by an American. When, as a reader, you reach that day in August 1963, one feels the tension within King and the movement. Because Branch has pulled no punches in his depiction of the strengths and weaknesses, both of the man and the Civil Rights Movement, it is hard to not get swept along with the passion and emotion as he calls out to the "snow-capped Rockies of Colorado" and down to the sweltering injustices of Mississippi. One cannot but feel the bottom fall out as a bullet takes Medgar Ever on the very night that President Kennedy would finally stand up for Civil Rights legislation. And you cannot but be overcome with awe, joy and wonder when Rev. Charles Billups calls out to Bull Connor, "Turn on your hoses. Turn loose your dogs. We will stand here 'til we die!"

Gripping, beautiful and inspiring, Branch's first part makes me all the more excited to continue the journey, even if we know that it will end most unceremoniously one April day in Memphis.

The Natural Contract - Michel Serres

French philosopher of technology Michel Serres examines how humans have become a global force on the level of the ice caps or the atmosphere. Serres writes that this "equipotency" demands that our moral world now extend beyond the social sphere to the world of things. Given our still-evolving relationship to the sciences we exist in a world that is at once more known to us and more widely understood to possibly be contrary, because of our doing, to the continuance of the human prospect. With this in mind, what are the steps to take to re-imagine a relationship to the natural world that is not premised upon "mastery and possession?" By retracing the manner in which the social sphere has come together and is premised around contestations of law and knowledge, and the differing legacies antecedent to modernity, The Natural Contract is a short volume focusing on redrawing a world in which non-humans have a voice.
For Serres, this future is one that must be understood in the light of our relationships to reason and its extension, scientific knowledge. Of primary concern is the development of an objective morality in which the natural sciences claim total authority to speak within the realms of rights and morals. Tracing the historical relationships between emergent knowledges and civil society, Serres tells us that a tension between orthodoxy (law) and heterodoxy (novel knowledge) has and always will be a realm of judgment. This is a crucial notion because it allows us to understand that there is not now, nor can ever be, a complete settled-ness to the manner in which we construct the world. Rather, knowledge and law will continue to ebb and flow in relation to one another. Further, rather than casting these two as incommensurable opposites, Serres explores how reason, which, once again, is the backbone of science, rests on exactly the same foundation as law - that of judgment. When we see these two can operate in concert, a new pathway opens up for human society to explore a future in which judgment (the realm of the social) interacts with the natural world (the realm of knowledge). Clear and very concise, The Natural Contract is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to think more deeply concerning our relationships between one another and the world around us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

The most recent magnum opus in American popular fiction, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom asks us how we organize our lives in modern America? In a society in which we are seemingly loosed from geographical, societal and class chains, how does a person, with the world theirs for the taking, make sense of their lives, themselves and their place in the world around them?

Tracing the coming of age of two generations of a midwestern family, Franzen's work provides keen insights into how families make sense of themselves and how people grow and change in relation to one another. The work is at its strongest illuminating the metal growth and complexities of the Burglund family; by the end we feel these creations exist, fully-formed, in the world around us. Franzen is able to achieve this characterization while incorporating it into the modern condition of american post-9/11 fears and disconnections. An strong statement about where Franzen sees us and resonant with the broader themes of our concerns and our condition.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

From a misty graveyard, to the empty lot where a once great mansion stood, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is a novel of punctuated equilibrium, where years will pass and then, in a flash, everything will change. All that has been written on even Dickens' least dissected of works could, surely, fill my room many times over.Thus I won't make an dead-on-arrival attempt to illuminate some heretofore shadowy aspect of this classic - though, that is not really what I am going for in any of these reviews.

One of the things that pervades this work is characterization as sense. Regardless of what Pip or Provis or Jaggers says about themselves of what others say about them, the reader is given an innate feel for who we like and who we detest. This is most clear in Pip and, what is truly remarkable about him, is that we are given the emotional space to feel differently about him as he grows up and changes. At differing times he is scared, insightful, daring, honest, jaded, pig-headed and gentle and the reader is given access to this, less by what he does and says and more in his prejudices and reactions. Often he gives the reader cause to be proud of him, but just as often he is an object of frustration. In this way it seems that Dickens has truly created the feeling of how we grow up and change and or constantly in the process of becoming the people we are.

Once again, Dickens is writing about the process of growing up and what we think we want versus what we really desire. One aspect of this I found interesting throughout was how happy Pip remembers his time with Joe and living outside the confines of dreary London. Of course some of this is tied-up in innocence and the rural character, but I couldn't help but thinking that maybe our more cosmopolitan urban character, isn't better off focusing on a world that is concerned with him and that allows him to be invested in it?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Diamonds, Gold and War - Martin Meredith

An introduction to what Martin Meredith views as the crucial time period in South African history, this work details the lives and relationships of the men who would contest for rule in pre-colonial and colonial South Africa. Of particular strength in Meredith's work are the visions of Cecil John Rhodes and Paul Kruger, the twin stars about which much of the region seemed to rotate for the closing years of the nineteenth century. Kruger especially is painted in a favorable light, and the reader cannot help but sympathize with the freedom plight of the Boers, particularly those of the uitlanders.

Where Meredith's work is at its best is picking the minutiae out of history to bring events and people to life so that the reader is left with a strong sense not just for what has occurred, but what it meant at the time. Particularly stirring are images of a young Boer girl playing the Transvaal anthem as her family is evicted from their farm, or Kruger's solemn goodbye to his wife - who he was never to see again. Meredith goes to great lengths to paint these pictures and is especially successful in his use of letters and speeches of the leaders he focuses on.

The most glaring omission from the work is its large disregard for the role played by black South Africans and how they changed along with the changing times. Too often in the work we see blacks as hinterland tribes reacting to encroachment, poor and dispossessed peoples having to reorganize their lives around burgeoning white populations, and as a people held hostage to the whims of the great white men around them. There is, of course, a modicum of truth in this reportage. However, if, as Meredith claims, the actions of South Africa's history have largely resulted from the fallout of the Anglo-Boer War, then it would certainly be appropriate to spend more time on the African identities and how they these interacted across the time period in question.

In all Meredith has provided a consumable, straightforward history of a fascinating time. Where the work suffers is from an omission of a more in-depth, nuanced look at how this time and place changed as events were unfolding. This is not to decry what Meredith has accomplished: a wonderful introduction to a crucial point in the history of country that has taken a very unique path to modernity. Meredith lays the groundwork for that path quite well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Mirror at Midnight - Adam Hochschild

Traveling across time and space in South Africa, Adam Hochschild examines the state of the country as he visits it in 1990. Focusing on an upcoming Afrikaner national holiday, what it represents and how it is perceived by differing ethnic groups Hochschild weaves together South Africa's past and present.

Besides giving the reader a better understanding of one of the main narratives of South African history the book remains especially poignant given the picture it paints of undemocratic, white-ruled South Africa, a few short years before its first democratic election in 1994. Witness the Afrikaners in the last throes of complete political power and the inhuman lengths both sides have gone to - though the balance lies largely on the hands of the whites - to contest for what power there is.  Travel with Hochschild as he visits Afrikaner battle memorials and hears what blacks and whites have to say about the country's thorny past.  And see the United States' and much of the western world's tacit and sometimes not-so-tacit complicity in propping-up the failing system of apartheid.

At its best the book examines the different ways we choose to remember history and how this process of remembering cannot be divorced from issues of power: who has it, who can mobilize it, and who is allowed to impose it on others.  By contrasting the historical scholarship surrounding the Battle of Blood River with the differing ways the event was portrayed in South Africa across the ensuing years, Hochschild cleverly illuminates a fractured society at a crossroads between the inevitability of majority rule and the last grasps by the ruling parties to assure their own position going forward. The story of South Africa's independence is so unique in world history and Hochschild's work adds a vital wrinkle to understanding the country's transformation.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Strength to Love - Martin Luther King, Jr.

A collection of sermons, altered slightly for the written word, by perhaps the greatest American spirit of the past century. Given the specificity of themes - the white and black church, desegregation, and the Cold War - much of King's writing reads as relevant as ever. 

Throughout each sermon King places at the forefront of his reflections an absolute and unshakable belief in the goodness and grace of God. For those who do not see the work of the divine imbuing the world around them this may seem difficult to surmount. However, King beautifully connects his faith to his unswerving commitment to social, racial and economic justice.

"A religion that professes a concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion." p. 149

Far from removing the arena of religion from the rest of human experience, King refused to shy away from notions that science and religion had many different things to tell each other: that an deep appreciation of each only enhances our understanding of the other. Similarly King freely quotes Shakespeare, Thoreau, Lincoln or James Russell Lowell to color contemporary religious and ethical points.  Clearly at home in the realm of western civilizations' greatest thinkers, King's synthesis of themes and willingness to explore the implications of their ethics and his faith illuminates far-seeing implications for the manner in which men live within our society. Whether Christian or atheist, young or old, poor or rich, there is much in King's ethical underpinnings that can serve any person in better reflecting on how he or she lives in this world and what it means to move towards our better angels.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lord Jim - Joseph Conrad

Marlow returns to recount life as it has happened to one young Englishman, he who the natives of Patusan have dubbed, "Tuan", or "Lord" Jim.  This ex-deckhand and ex-water clerk strikes Marlow, and indeed many older men who encounter him as a young man of decided character and vigor.  Unfortunately for Jim, he is unable to escape the shortcomings of his soul and is thus doomed to allow the seas of life to forever toss him hither and yon.  

"He looked with an owner's eye at the peace of the evening, at the river, at the houses, at the everlasting life of the forests, at the life of the old mankind, at the secrets of the land, at the pride of his own heart: but it was they that possessed him and made him their own to the innermost thought, to the slightest stir of blood, to his last breath." p. 178

At its core, Lord Jim is a story about men who life happens to.  Throughout the reader cannot escape the notion that Marlow, Jim and Stein are men who are struggling to find their place in the world and deal the best they can with the opportunities life allows them.  This is not to limit their own agency, but rather to highlight that we are creatures of the world around us, not separated from it.  So often we cannot but move along and wait to see how the world casts our part and try our best to live up to our ideals along the way.  Wherever any man - or woman - wanders, Marlow's narration, and Jim's experience, seems to tell us that we cannot escape who we are and that each account will be settled, whether within one's own conscience or by the world we inhabit.  In this regard Marlow and Jim present as opposites: Marlow has seen and down much and allows that he has at times acted rightly and at times been found wanting, yet he remains able to move along, knowing that his future is often only loosely connected to his past.  Jim however cannot escape the weight of his shortcomings; his drive for an ideal, one that we remain unsure is ever attainable, stalks him throughout his life.  From this there can be no escape.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Other Life - Paul Theroux

"Reality for me was past, and it was elsewhere." p. 144

Morose, self-absorbed and over-dramatic concerning what he sees as his own lot of suffering in this world, Paul Theroux's My Other Life is nonetheless an insightful look into the the mind and journey of the author.  Cast as a fictive autobiography, it is unclear how much of what is related is an accurate depiction of Theroux's life.  Far from being the book's downfall, it is precisely this attempt to get at the spirit and import of his particular experiences, that makes Theroux's work uniquely instructive. 

Were this to be a drab recounting of his life and times Theroux's attempt would be wayward from the start.  Yet by making the focus life as it has been, shaded with life as it could have been and as he imagines it, Theroux has succeeded in (we think) providing a more complete portrait of the artist.  We are given the picture of a furtive, wandering, hopelessly fretful and perhaps too inwardly-focused man's reflections on his version of the truth of his life.  Whereas we would conceive of an autobiography as a retelling of a man's life and times, My Other Life is concerned with the life Theroux has led in his own head.

This is of course a tricky rope to walk and though this approach is the book's strength, it may also be its greatest downfall.  Reading the work requires a certain level of sympathy with the author as he has cast himself, without which the work may be a bore; this is the story of one man, make no mistake.  There is little to no character development and we cannot expect Theroux to grow and learn as all events are recorded after the fact and with an eye towards the larger point: that we take what we have gained from our past experiences, use them and learn from them as best we can and try to move forward purposefully and, hopefully, happily. 

Though Theroux must surely be the dominant light by which the story is understood , one cannot help but wonder if glimpsing just a few other stars would not better help us understand the daylight.  Because we only see him it is hard to tell why we should care that he has grown and traveled and shared his sometimes fictive, sometimes real experiences.  At the end it is hard to see if Theroux is any better off for all he has written and seen - though surely he would agree that he is unsure.