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.