Great writers often seem to lead messy lives, and none more so than great memoirists, for tidy lives do not make great memoirs. While not as talented...moreGreat writers often seem to lead messy lives, and none more so than great memoirists, for tidy lives do not make great memoirs. While not as talented a poet, Robert Graves was every bit as batshit crazy as William Butler Yeats, with more cause, and as with Yeats, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of love with Graves over the decades. As Paul Fussell explains in his magisterial The Great War and Modern Memory the only way to understand Graves' Good-bye to All That is as a mordant burlesque on the darkest of events. (A commonly cited example is Graves' story about making tea from machine gun coolant.) It may seem irreverent to write about the "Great War" in a comic vein; in fact, it undoubtedly is. But there is no reason that war should be regarded with reverence, and, as Fussell points out, perhaps humor is the only way to come to grips with the horror.
Graves' own approach to Good-bye to All That is perhaps summed up by his comment on life after the War:
I still had the Army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth — it was always easier for me now, when charged with any fault, to lie my way out in Army style.
Graves, Good-bye to All That 287 (Anchor 1985). These are lies in pursuit of a larger truth (as Fussell also points out). Even for someone with the good luck and mental toughness to survive the horrors of the trenches, it must be hard to look back into the abyss straight on. Sometimes, mockery is the only antidote to madness. Sitting here on a Sunday morning in my bathrobe at the keyboard with a cup of strong coffee, it is easy to contemplate the sucking, shell churned mud of half-frozen ditches, swarming with rats, amidst the heavy whine and thud of the shells, the moans and shrieks of the wounded in no-man's land, the ever present fear of gas, and the fatal knowledge that sooner or later one would be ordered to march straight on with bayonet fixed into the stuttering maw of a machine gun. Perhaps not quite so easy to contemplate for one who has lived the experience — a possible explanation for the taciturnity of so many old soldiers.
P.S. As a bonus, for anyone who has ever taught English as a Second Language abroad, see Graves' penultimate chapter on his assignment to Egypt as a professor.(less)
For anyone who has ever worried about genetically modified organisms, incurable plagues, climate change, war, famine, or global dominance by giant cor...moreFor anyone who has ever worried about genetically modified organisms, incurable plagues, climate change, war, famine, or global dominance by giant corporations, this book is your worst nightmare. The eponymous heroine of the book is a genetically engineered and enhanced "New Person" who is enslaved in a decadent future Thailand, riven by internal political division but gamely attempting to fight off floods, epidemics, and the giant food consortia that now dominate the earth. Self-interest and survival are the dominant motivations of the characters, and yet the story is nevertheless engaging, fast-paced, and instructive.(less)
This book is not so much about the love of food as it is about using food to fill the absence of love. As Tolstoy pointed out, every unhappy family is...moreThis book is not so much about the love of food as it is about using food to fill the absence of love. As Tolstoy pointed out, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and that certainly holds true in this fascinating and engaging memoir. Christensen chronicles a series of dysfunctional relationships, from her abusive father to her incompatible lovers, awash in a sea of alcohol and punctuated by bouts of depression. At times, the book seems like an extended therapy session. Christensen, however, not surprisingly, is perceptive, funny, and a trifle acerbic. It is not hard to believe that she is yet another successful novelist with a messy personal life. And for all that food is a proxy for love, the recipes are mouth watering. If only life were as straightforward as cooking.(less)
A History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists b...moreA History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists because it deftly explores a wider mystical tradition that goes well beyond the literalism of Western Protestantism against which modern atheism is chiefly a reaction. It is a good book to instill humility into Christians because it exposes the religious limitations of the cramped historical literalism that has proved a cul de sac for modern Christianity.
By definition, the more mysterious God is, the less knowable it is. At the same time, the more knowable God is, the less credible it is. If the notion of God is to be saved, it must be predicated upon the mystical, ineffable, incomprehensible awareness of a divine being that transcends the nature of the physical universe as we know it. The problem then becomes that such a God is not only essentially unknowable but also irrelevant to human affairs. Every attempt to connect God to human affairs makes God at once less mysterious and paradoxically less believable.
On the one hand, the author does provide a fascinating history of the attempts of mystics — from Buddhists to Byzantine Christians to Sufis to Kabbalists — to attain an experience of God by routes other than rationalism. And she has a fascinating insight into the universality and openness of such approaches, which typically recognize the possibility of many approaches to one God. These approaches have the merit of recognizing that what cannot be apprehended by reason should be approached by other means, and there is clearly something to be said for the idea that reason is not the only mode of perception. The more unapproachable and incomprehensible God becomes, however, the less apparent it becomes that its existence or non-existence has any bearing on human affairs.
On the other hand, the literal, personal, interventionist God of Western Christianity has become increasingly untenable thanks, ironically, to Western Christianity's emphasis on literal interpretation of the scripture. The problem with the literal historicity of the Bible is that much of it is demonstrably, provably, laughably false. Quite apart from the question of human parthenogenesis or revivification, my then six-year-old daughter exposed the empirical problem quite succinctly when listening to Bible stories at the County Fair: "There's no way you could fit all the animals in the world on one boat!" People who insist on the literal nature of parables set themselves up for self-contradiction, and people who insist on the parabolic nature of reality open themselves to the charge that they are merely reciting fictions.
Fundamentalists come in different stripes, however, and the author draws a distinction between the cultural conservatism and literalism of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-imperialist reaction of Islamic fundamentalism, which she argues is primarily a reaction to the political evisceration of the Muslim world by superior European technology. As such, she argues, it is marked not so much by anti-scientific obscurantism and as by a fierce desire to reverse European political dominance.
Although the author concedes that "a passionate and committed atheism can be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism," it is clear that she finds atheism an emotionally unsatisfying alternative. After all, her comment assumes that "religious" is a term of approbation and leaves no room for a clear-eyed and dispassionate skepticism that the "force is with us." Armstrong gives a nod to the idea that one can be passionate about the world as it is on the assumption that for all practical purposes we are on our own, but she is clearly unwilling to accept such a view as the final word. (less)
George Orwell is indisputably the greatest didactic writer in the English language since Samuel Johnson. As an essayist, he is a nonpareil, and his in...moreGeorge Orwell is indisputably the greatest didactic writer in the English language since Samuel Johnson. As an essayist, he is a nonpareil, and his insights — which he modestly characterized as "a power of facing unpleasant facts" — are remarkable, original, and biting. The scintillating force of his pen shines most brightly in his essays and his memoirs.
The very power of his personal prose that gives such force to his essays and memoirs, however, leaves his fiction curiously flat. For all his insight, he seems to lack the ability to free his characters to lead independent fictional lives. A person reading Orwell's novels for their characterization would shoot himself.
Such is the force, clarity, and originality of Orwell's ideas, however, and the freshness of his candor, that it is easy to forgive the flat characterization and intrusive narration of the novels. And while each generation seems to find some pundit who dismisses Orwell's dark vision in 1984 as passe, fresh revelations of the octopus-like stranglehold of the National Security Agency over the daily minutiae of the the lives of 300 million Americans gives proof daily of how prescient Orwell was. Big Brother is indeed watching.
We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect rec...more
We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect recall. In fact, it is more akin to an evolutionary afterthought that operates on dubious premises, fuzzy memories, and irrational impulses. We are finely tuned to survive in a world where we may be someone's next meal, but the very behavior that may be adaptive under those circumstances may be unforeseen, unnoticed, or ignored in today's world, with consequences that range from the comical to the tragic.
McRaney offers a series of tart essays, each of which illustrates a quirk of the human mind that may be familiar to clinical psychologists but a revelation to the rest of us. If, like the ancient Greeks, one seeks to know oneself, this is an excellent place to start. (less)
My best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homewo...moreMy best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homework in a demanding scientific discipline (while studying Chinese on the side) before dinner, and went to bed promptly by 9:00 p.m. after a leisurely dinner and a couple of hours of science fiction. This book is not for him.
Being the opposite of my best friend on the organizational scale, much of my life has been spent on a journey to bring life into focus and clean up my act. I am a modest, but not obsessive, consumer of organizational self-help books, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow to David Allen's Getting Things Done to Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.
J.D. Meier's Getting Results the Agile Way, based on his experience as a program manager at Microsoft, strikes me as a thoughtful and important contribution to the genre. Meier does not despise the minutiae of task management, but he attempts to transcend it. His emphasis is on identifying measurable goals, working toward them systematically, and evaluating the results regularly. In addition, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing that time and energy are finite resources, and he writes at some length about both effectiveness — doing the right things — and efficiency — doing them well.
Part of being both effective and efficient is boundaries and balance. If you work to exhaustion, it affects your ability to perform in every other area of your life. If you do not get at least a minimum amount of sleep, you won't function effectively. If you do not have some fun, your motivation will plummet. And if you do not pay attention to your relationships with other people, they will atrophy. While these observations may seem obvious, it nevertheless takes a certain amount of planning and discipline to ensure that people schedule a ceiling to the amount of time spent at work and a floor to the amount of time spent for fun, sleep, and other people.
Beyond his emphasis on the importance of short and long term goal setting, Meier is also an astute observer of the self-defeating mind games that prevent people from working effectively toward their goals, and he breaks down a number of simple strategies for addressing them, from settling for something less than perfection on a first iteration to plunging into work to escape analysis paralysis.
In all, Meier's book achieves what should be the goal of every good organizational book: it does not settle for tidying our schedules, but insists that we examine our goals in the hope that we will choose to live more meaningful lives.(less)
Marrakesh by Design is a perfect pearl of a book; brilliant on the surface but also containing many layers of effort and experience accumulated over t...moreMarrakesh by Design is a perfect pearl of a book; brilliant on the surface but also containing many layers of effort and experience accumulated over the years. The aim is to bring the beauties of the Moroccan decorative arts to an American audience so that they can be infused into American design in new and creative ways. The book includes a number of stunning examples from Marrakesh's chic expatriate community, whose riads and villas meld Moroccan tradition and modern flair.
As befits someone who has lived in Morocco many years, Maryam Montague is fluent in the vocabulary of Moroccan artisanry, whether it is the intricacies of plaster gep or the beauties of zellij mosaics or the merits of organic versus chemical dyes. Montague displays sensitivity toward the integrity of autochthonous art forms, knowledge about the importation of Persian and Arabic influences, and a talent for applying her knowledge to contemporary decor. Indeed, one of the unexpected pleasures of this book is its practical guides for do-it-yourself design projects and its catalog of merchants who deal in Moroccan decor.
In short, this is a book for the practical aesthete in search of a way to incorporate the elegance of Moroccan design into a Western setting. It is not a detailed treatise on Moroccan artisanship, nor is it a scholarly history of the Moroccan aesthetic. But for those who aspire to have a little bit of the glamor of cosmopolitan Marrakesh rub off on their own homes, Marrakesh by Design should be a welcome addition to their library. (less)
I am haunted by the ghosts of the breaker boys. At the beginning of the twentieth century, little boys of 10 and 12 worked six days a week for ten-hou...moreI am haunted by the ghosts of the breaker boys. At the beginning of the twentieth century, little boys of 10 and 12 worked six days a week for ten-hour days perched over coal chutes from which they plucked bits of rock. Clarence Darrow, at the time the most famous attorney for the coal miners, described the fate of one such boy as follows:
One day his little companion who always sat beside him leaned too far over as he picked the slate. He lost his balance and fell into the trough where the lumps of coal ran down. He plunged madly along with the rushing flood into the iron teeth of the remorseless breaker.... It took a long while to stop the mighty machine, and then it was almost an hour before the boy could be put together in one pile. Several days thereafter a man in a little town in Massachusetts thought that he saw blood on some lumps of coal that he was pouring into the top of his fine nickel-plated stove — but still there is blood on all our coal — and for that matter on almost everything we use, but a man is a fool if he looks for other people's blood.
Darrow was labor's lawyer early in his career, until his defense of the McNamara brothers for blowing up the Los Angeles Times building collapsed in a guilty plea, albeit one that saved the brothers from the gallows.
At the other end of his career, one of Darrow's more notable cases, tried in the wake of the famous Scopes monkey trial, was the defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American physician who moved with his family into a white neighborhood in Detroit, where they soon found themselves surrounded by a lynch mob numbering hundreds of angry white people. Sweet had taken the precaution of seeing that his family was well armed, however, and they fired repeatedly into the crowd, killing and wounding several people. In the subsequent murder trial, Darrow took on the defense and won a remarkable acquittal.
It was said of Darrow that he was cynical in everything, except that he lacked real cynicism. An atheist, a champion and practitioner of "free love," a lawyer who would defend the most depraved criminals and take on the most hopeless causes, Darrow earned his sobriquet "attorney for the damned" honestly. Convinced that human beings were the products of their circumstances and that free will was a myth, the only thing Darrow truly believed in was mercy. And he was perhaps the century's greatest exponent of mercy, a quality that was all the more remarkable in the astonishingly brutal and corrupt Chicago of his day. Though he was willing to defend the most depraved of criminals if the price was right, he was also highly unusual in his willingness to take up such hopeless causes as those of the breaker boys and Ossian Sweet.
This fine biography by John A. Farrell not only evokes Darrow in all his brilliant, Byronic splendor and fallibility, but also provides a keen insight into America's crippled psyche.(less)
It is not often that the final course of a six course meal is as satisfying as the first, but Dorothy Dunnett serves up a banquet in the Lymond Chroni...moreIt is not often that the final course of a six course meal is as satisfying as the first, but Dorothy Dunnett serves up a banquet in the Lymond Chronicles that pleases more with every volume.
The violence of the sixteenth century court and battlefield sometimes reaches almost cartoonish levels, and the level of intrigue is such that, did we not have a record of such (later) historical events as the Gunpowder Plot, it could hardly be credited. Nevertheless, the novels are beautifully paced and plotted, and Dunnett weaves a rich tapestry depicting the pageantry, poetry, music, literature, and science of the era immediately preceding the cultural explosion of Elizabeth's reign. Indeed, while the novels deal principally with France and Scotland, looming in the background throughout is the rise of English greatness following the ascent of her most illustrious monarch.
To borrow a phrase from As Time Goes By, in the end, it's "the same old story, a tale of love and glory." But what a tale, and how beautifully told!(less)
When Sir Walter Scott invented the historical novel in 1814 with the publication of Waverley, he took Europe by storm. As Georg Lukacs later pointed o...moreWhen Sir Walter Scott invented the historical novel in 1814 with the publication of Waverley, he took Europe by storm. As Georg Lukacs later pointed out, Scott also pioneered the technique of introducing a mediocre fictional character in the midst of the great actors on the historical stage, and used his protagonist to organize the action against the backdrop of major historical events.
Scott's technique has endured, but with the modification in modern historical fiction that the protagonist has become progressively less mediocre and progressively more superhuman. This is evident in such characters as Stephen Maturin in Patrick O'Brian's well-regarded series of nautical novels, and it is apparent in Francis Crawford of Lymond in the Game of Kings, the first book of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles. In other words, despite the apparent scrupulous historical accuracy of the novel regarding larger historical events, this novel has to be taken with a whopping suspension of disbelief.
However, if one can master one's disbelief, it is quite easy to seduced by Lymond, the master wit, clever polyglot, indomitable swordsman, incomparable strategist, and irresistible ladies man, whose self deprecating wit, charm, and occasional misstep render him engaging rather than obnoxious.
Moreover, the story is cleverly and tightly plotted, revealing a fascinating complexity but never revealing so much that one is not drawn to turn the next page. A bonus for those with an interest in the history of Scotland is the rich political interplay between the Scots and their larger and more powerful neighbors, England and France, during the infancy of Mary Queen of Scots.
In returning to the historical Scotland that gave birth to the historical novel, Dorothy Dunnett proves herself worthy of her great progenitor.
I picked up Sister Citizen because I am interested from a legal perspective in the implications that stereotyping of African American women has in the...moreI picked up Sister Citizen because I am interested from a legal perspective in the implications that stereotyping of African American women has in the workplace. The book more than rewarded my interest.
The book is a pastiche of literary excerpts, critical essays, news analysis, focus group reporting, and statistical surveys that covers everything from the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the success of Michelle Obama and the shaming of Shirley Sherrod. In between it packs powerful statistical analyses of the attitudes of African American women toward everything from themselves to God.
Unifying the work are several potent themes. One is the way in which the expectation that African American women will live up to the image of the "Strong Black Woman" is both a source of strength for African American women and an obstacle to full political involvement in the community. The obverse of self-reliance is inhibition about seeking help from others. A second is that the way in which women are treated is often determined by which of several stereotypes are imposed on them. A third is the way in which community solidarity can turn into community shame.
A particularly valuable contribution of Ms. Harris-Perry's opus is that not only does it reveal the results of introspection on the part of the women it studies, but it also reflects their attitudes toward the larger white community. As such, it shines a spotlight on some common ground between the two, but also reveals significant gulfs in understanding.
African American women occupy a unique place in the Black Community and in society at large. They are among our most vulnerable citizens both in terms of resources and negative stereotyping, At the same time, the word they used most often to describe themselves was "strong," and they are pillars of their families, churches, communities, and society at large. The aim of this book is to point the way toward their fuller integration into American society, both so that their contributions will be more fully realized and so that they can lay claim to the broad support of the society to which they contribute.
My ancestry does not include much in the way of ethnic color, but the Scots provide most of what there is. Indeed, in the past century the Scottish br...moreMy ancestry does not include much in the way of ethnic color, but the Scots provide most of what there is. Indeed, in the past century the Scottish branch of the family, at some remove, has included a fighter pilot and war hero, a celebrated poet, and two successful movie stars. So it's with a nod to our Caledonian ancestors that we toast each other on the holidays, and I seized on the opportunity to take my bride to Scotland when I got married.
So it was with some surprise that I discovered that, despite Scotland's disproportionate contribution to the modern world, it is not particularly easy to find a good general history of Scotland. Fortunately, Magnus Magnusson's engaging history of Scotland from its early history through the Act of Union makes up in verve what it lacks in sophistication. It vividly recounts the intrigues, murders, and battles of the Royal Court throughout the Stewart Dynasty, explores in some detail the history of the Covenanters and of Cromwell, and limns the portraits of a number of colorful figures in Scottish history such as Viscount Dundee, Rob Roy MacGregor, and Sir Walter Scott. Indeed, the history is loosely structured around Scott's earlier history, Tales of a Grandfather.
The popular tone of the work is often emphasized by a certain guidebook quality, as Magnusson points out the location of current monuments and motor routes, but ultimately this does little to detract from the narrative. At the same time, while the book does give a good general overview of the political forces at work in Scotland, which spent a great deal of time trying to play the French off against the English, one might need to look elsewhere for a theoretical explication of the progress of Scottish history.
In addition, except for a brief coda on the new Scottish parliament, the book effectively ends with the Act of Union and does not address the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century history of the Scottish people after Scotland was no longer an independent country. While it is not really fair to criticize a book for not doing what it doesn't intend to do, it seems a shame in some ways that this very rich and often turbulent era in the history of the Scottish people is not addressed.(less)
As a friend of mine remarked on hearing that I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwins' Team of Rivals, "Goodwin had a good subject." This account does its subject justice. It conveys the emotional power of its great subject while persuasively delineating the qualities that forged an obscure Illinois lawyer into the greatest commander and statesman in the history of the United States. While some have suggested that Team of Rivals is primarily about political compromise, it is really about one man's ability to rise above political compromise — the squabbling of his cabinet members and the factionalism of the Republican Party — to forge an unprecedented war machine, crush the rebellion, and eradicate the greatest institutional evil in American history, Remarkably, he accomplished this in the service not of subverting but of successfully preserving America's system of democratic government (a lesson subsequent leaders might take to heart). Ultimately, it is the clarity of Lincoln's moral vision that sets him apart.
1 The Lincoln We Never See
George Orwell once famously remarked that saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent, and there is no doubt that our veneration for Lincoln the historical giant — "Father Abraham" as the soldiers called him — obscures our view of Lincoln the man. While Goodwin does not shy away from Lincoln's abused childhood, or his mentally ill wife, or corruption in the War Department, one does have a sense that her critical portrait may be slightly airbrushed. There is a bit of a "feel good" quality to her portrait; then again, it takes a very jaundiced perspective or a strong effort of will to "feel bad" about Lincoln.
2 Sausage in the Making
A little bit of the seamier side of politics does come out in the account of the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, in which it is pretty clear that Lincoln was willing to beg, bribe, or steal any Congressional vote he could obtain to secure passage, which he narrowly did. His tactics, which are only briefly described, seem more reminiscent of our picture of Lyndon Johnson than of Abraham Lincoln. But perhaps it is as well to have a realistic view of Washington deal-making even in the noblest of causes.
3 Greater Vision
The strongest sense that one gets from Goodwin's biography, however, is that Lincoln had a vision, moral clarity, and political acumen that clearly transcended those of his admittedly very gifted political contemporaries. In the political chess game, Lincoln was always two moves ahead. And the man who could go from plans for voluntary colonization of African Americans abroad to keeping a governor waiting so the he could speak with "my friend [Frederick] Douglass," and who could grow from the simple preservation of the union to the complete abolition of slavery under the Constitution, is a man of unusual moral capacity. Goodwin weaves a fascinating story of the men in Lincoln's cabinet who formed his "team of rivals," but she leaves no doubt as to who was the captain.