Wednesday, December 21, 2016

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coming into the Country - John McPhee

Fewer than 20 years removed from achieving statehood, Alaska was still very much a frontier. A place for misfits, the prideful, the quiet, the lonely, but also the committed, the true, and the false, Alaskans came (and come) in all forms. But generally (with the glaring exception of indigenous people) they are immigrants, who have been drawn, not just away from one country but towards another. Committed to both inhabiting the place of their imagination and crafting a place that is their own.

McPhee recounts Alaska and its people negotiating the complicated meanings of being both part of and apart from the United States. The infiltration of people, technologies, and governmental order along the frontier could, for many, make this vast place seem increasingly small. Along the foothills and inlets of Juneau, spreading across the Turnagain Arm, into Denali and up to the North Slope would come employment, services, communication, as well as laws, rules, oversight. Alaska was the last place in the United States a person could homestead - set out for an unoccupied plot to make their own.

Though a vast space of wilderness and wildness, Alaska is also a place of people. These are McPhee's favored subjects. The city planner for a would-be newly cited state capital. The trapper on his line. The town council. The homesteader. The miner. Alaska in its many iterations dominates,and yet is shaped by its people. The land is vast, yet not untouched. Its meaning is apparent for some; to others, only hinted at. McPhee's work is as capacious as the state, finding space for the plurality of human and natural voices. It is a testament to a specific time, in a seemingly timeless land.

Monday, October 24, 2016

All the Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy

The arid lands along the Texas-Mexico borderlands were, and remain, a vast space of dust, mesquite, and sun. Cormac McCarthy's spare style somewhat mimics the spare landscape. The country, the people, and the relationship between them come alive in prose embodying distance and space. As they traverse the rangelands the lives of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins take shape. They grow and change in response to a land, the bones of which are laid before us. The country is hard on people.

John Grady Cole starts as a young man, moving gradually toward adulthood. There are no plans to speak of. He takes what is allowed to him, but is not swallowed by circumstance. Both he and Lacey seem content in the knowledge that most things don't have a suitable explanation. There are human powers which move our lives and we can choose how to meet these powers, but most people will have little say in their actions. The world is alternately bright as the open plains and dark as a jail cell. Only at certain, fleeting times is there balance between the two. Nevertheless, life pulses with blood and there is no horizon beyond death.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Five Love Languages - Gary Chapman

Having at least one book emphasizing relationships with others, rather than just myself, is at the least a paltry offering. Not only geared towards helping us understand our significant other, Chapman's work provides grist for thoughtful reflection across the important relationships composing our lives. We have all had the experience of being misunderstood by those closest to us. This can be particularly galling when we are, ostensibly, trying to be caring and/or show our devotion to someone else. Chapman gives us tools to help untangle these missed connections. Reading and discussing this book with a partner, family, or friends can stimulate meaningful conversations and serve to bring relationships closer. While there is certainly some essentializing taking place, it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to dismiss Chapman's numerous insights. Perhaps the most important of which is a reminder that we are always able to listen closely to those closest to us.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Race of a Lifetime - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. A campaign biography is thus a particular kind of conceit. The author(s), after-the-fact is trying to simultaneously recreate the tension and uncertainty of a contest which the reader knows the outcome to, while, also, reading the tea leaves for clues as to why one side emerged the victor. The work balances at a knife's edge: when successful the genre makes for both insightful and compelling reading. The grandmaster of the genre, the standard by which all campaign biographies remain judged, is T.H. White, whose Making of the President series (chronically the elections from 1960 to 1976) read as powerful political science and a careful study of the (political) human condition. Richard Ben Cramer and Bob Woodward have, with varying levels of success added their own efforts, respectively recounting the 1988 and 1996 elections.

Heilemann and Halperin's work reads a bit 'in the bag' for Obama. In contrast to his staid, mature, professional, and careful approach, Hillary Clinton is indecisive and McCain ill-prepared to meet the challenges, both of campaigning and (seemingly) of governing. The characterization of the losing candidate resembles aspects of White's Goldwater, and Woodward's Dole. We may wonder if there is some more subtle lens we apply to explain the failures of the loser? McCain however receives somewhat short shrift: he is simply not as interesting as either Obama or the Arizona Senator's eventual running mate Sarah Palin. The great revelation of the work is the haphazard manner in which Palin was selected and the almost immediate realization that she was way over her head. This, perhaps more than any other single aspect, is the perspective from which we view McCain's fitness for the Office.

Living with President Obama these past eight years Heilemann and Halperin's perspective on the man seem to have been borne out. If Averell Harrimann truly said that, to be President, one must, above all other things, desire to be President, Barack Obama appears to challenge this assertion. Reading this account he appears, willing, able, and increasingly ready to serve, but the passionate need to be President is absent. Perhaps this made him a more balanced campaigner and manager, perhaps it explains what some see as a cool detachment from the political aspects of this most political position. Perhaps the nature of the Presidency, and the process by which we select a President, has changed fundamentally. While Obama's candidacy seemed to represent a shift in America, with hindsight it appears to embody more of an uncertain anticipation of a new America. One emerging from a clearly defined post-war era into a future we cannot yet see.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Afrikaners - Hermann Giliomee

Survival. Hermann Giliomee looks at the history of a people who dominated twentieth century South Africa and sees how a heritage of marginalization and struggle has inculcated them with an ever-present concern that their people and their way of life requires defending. Because of their isolation the people are somewhat fragile. Fragile and under attack. Apartheid stands alone in the latter-half of the twentieth century as the last case of overt, formal, racially-motivated national segregation. By the last decades of the twentieth century the ruling National Party of South Africa was holding on by the only means it knew: doubling-down on separation, exacerbating formal inequality. Any other approach, any compromise, was seen as a threat to the volk. Giliomee contends that ceding power was seen as analogous to authorizing a cultural death.

Telling the story of the Dutch settlers who became Boers and then emerged as Afrikaners Giliomee recounts a people occupying an uncertain middle ground. Never Company people, nor fully accepted as part of imperial British society, nor willing to 'lower' themselves to the status of black Africans, the Boers initially defined themselves by what they were not. As their cultural identity became forged through a shared 19th century mythology the Afrikaner began to emerge as emblematic of a people and a way of life. Slagtersnek, the Great Trek, Dingaan's Day, and the Anglo-Boer War all were the foundation of a fiercely independent people who saw themselves besieged. Once the Union of South Africa was inaugurated the volk sought to ensure that they maintained control over their small corner of the world.

Yet, the prospects of survival change. As the world pressed in upon South Africa, as liberals at home and abroad, and as black South Africans increasingly found their political voice, survival of the government and survival of the volk were once again separated. The government could not stand; the volk had to find a new means of defining themselves in a composite society. The next chapter of the Afrikaners has only begun.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne

Back to Hogwarts and the wizarding world. I'm not too proud to admit it.

If there is no other take-away from this one it is that time-travel is messy. The ethical qualms faced by some of the older characters as they wrestle with the unlived-lives of parallel selves in parallel times was perhaps the most interesting human aspect of the story. What types of cognitive equipment could we possibly have to assess our own actions in regards to the existence of a self we can never know?

Part of the issue with the script format is the asymmetry in which we are presented the characters. The original cast has been fleshed-out for us through stories providing insights into their actions and personalities. The new characters here only present us with dialogue through which to piece them together. As a result Albus Severus and Scorpius are shadows compared to more familiar characters. Much of this may be obviated on stage; in book form it serves to move the emphasis away from the primary protagonists. In the end it feels like a bit of a rushed job. Nevertheless the wizarding world remains a rich place and enjoyable to revisit.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

Intimacy means allowing someone else into the most hidden parts of ourselves. When someone is close to us they see behind the walls we construct - personal, financial, social, protective. Knowing what others don't know is a form of special access. It makes can bring us closer together, but it also makes them powerful, We trust that the power we have given will not be used against us. Gone Girl is a story about what happens when that trust is abused. For the story to work Amy and Nick need to know most everything about each other - yet still be capable of surprising their partner. In each case they use the power of their intimacy against the other. In each case they have kept something from their partner, something important.

Intimacy is also about commitment. Commitment runs throughout every page of this story. Who is committed to whom. Who is committed to what. What happens when commitment falters, or becomes twisted. The story is especially powerful when we get to see both two sides to Amy' commitment.

Intimacy and generous commitment are among foundations of solid, meaningful, positive relationships. But when they become warped relationships verge into dark places. Finally Nick and Amy's relationship is about competition. Who, each by their own standards, will emerge as the winner?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Battle Cry of Freedom - James McPherson

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

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

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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen

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

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Frontiers - Noel Mostert

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin

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

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

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

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A History of South Africa: Social and Economic - CW De Kiewiet

Land, climate, and conflicting peoples: these have been the foundations of South African social and economic life. CW De Kiewiet's history, first published in 1941, recounts attempted, imposed, but ultimately unattainable separations within South Africa. Early colonization sought to make the Cape a way-station for trade between Europe and Asia - seeking to abstract this outpost of economy from its environs. Later Dutch settlers wished to remain at a distance from Cape colonial administrative strictures. As the Boers headed to the hinterlands they wished to found their own society, free of natives and imperial requirements. The Transvaal and the Orange Free State wanted independence; liberty to govern themselves and the natives. The Boers did not, however, wish to shake themselves loose of the land, but to inhabit it and dispose of it as they saw fit. Had the lands which were later to be united as South Africa remained so resource-poor the Boers may have gotten their wish.

Whether for good or for ill gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in surpassing abundance in 1886. This was not California gold - the kind available to the solitary miner with his pan in a stream. The gold of the rand ran in deep, diffuse veins. Vast economies of scale, huge labor forces, and uncountable tons of dynamite, shovels, pickaxes, trolleys, and beams were needed to extract the gold and make it pay. In hordes they came to work the fields, both black and white. The Tshona, the Zulu, the Khoi and the Xhosa; Boers, British, Germans, Australians, and Americans. Soon these latter ones, foreign whites, the Uitlanders, outnumbered Boer citizens, but remained devoid of political rights. Who was to be responsible for these Uitlanders, and who would ensure their rights? The companies? The Cape? The republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State? The Boers were adamantly defensive of their culture and livelihoods - to grant equality to the Uitlanders would be to lose their identity. There was no question of the natives.

Witwatersrand would prove to be the richest gold field in the world, bringing the world to South Africa. Economy brought together all of that which had been previously kept asunder. With the invasion of the world new environments and new communities were built. The contact of men with one another, between people and the soil, and the slow collision of different communities in regards to the land and their neighbors composes the early history of South Africa. The story of one comprises the story of many.