"Some work of noble note, may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods," said Ulysses to his aging crew. The works of men that strove wit...more"Some work of noble note, may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods," said Ulysses to his aging crew. The works of men that strove with Gods is the subject of John McPhee's The Control of Nature. In three case studies - the Atchafalaya region of the Mississippi River, the lava flows of Iceland, and the mudslides of the San Gabriel Mountains - he demonstrates what happens when humankind tries to control nature.
John McPhee is a prize-winning author who has written over thirty books about science and nature. He tells a good story, but his prose sometimes gets in the way of the action. And the tales he is telling are the stuff of big-screen action thrillers. In the first section, Atchafalaya, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying to keep the Mississippi River within its banks. Historically, the river has jumped from channel to channel once every thousand years or so in an attempt to find the most convenient route to the sea. If it were to jump again, both Baton Rouge and New Orleans would become just a watery memory. So the Corps built a system of concrete dykes and diversions that are all that is standing between flood control and inundation. McPhee intimates that this fragile system may last a day, a year, or a hundred years, but, in the end, the mighty Mississippi will be controlled by no man.
The same holds true for the lava and the mudslides. In both cases, the forces of nature are stronger than any man-made edifice. On top of that, they are more unpredictable than any man-made plan. What keeps the people alive who live at the edge of the wilderness is nothing more than blind luck.
Despite the fatalistic message of this non-fiction book, the story is still riveting. It takes the reader to places she may have never been and introduces her to a wide cast of characters, some of whom have dedicated their lives to controlling nature and others who have decided to let nature take her course, come what may.
The book can be considered a companion piece to more theoretical works, such as James Scott's Seeing Like a State or Robert Josephson's Industrialized Nature. Though the theory is not explicitly written into The Control of Nature, the unpredictable outcome of planned environmental engineering projects is evident throughout the text. The three sections stand alone as individual stories, making for shorter, more digestible bites. Overall, a recommended read for someone looking for a story about the ongoing battle between men and Gods.(less)
Though not as burning as the chicken and the egg question, “What came first, Rainbow Six or Wild Justice?” Regardless, the concept could be carbon cop...moreThough not as burning as the chicken and the egg question, “What came first, Rainbow Six or Wild Justice?” Regardless, the concept could be carbon copied from one book to the other. Albeit, Wild Justice would be the smudged and harder to read copy. Escalating terrorist attacks lead an trans-Atlantic team of highly trained intelligence and army men to be ready at a moment’s notice to fight against the rising tide of evil. This is a plot line designed to thrill, and in both cases the authors, Tom Clancy and Wilbur Smith respectively, string their readers along a knife’s edge of suspense. However, Smith falls into a trap of predictability that, while making the ride no less enjoyable, presents the reader with a bit of an anti-climatic lurch after he realizes he had guessed it all along.
Other complaints with Wild Justice are an unnecessarily long and graphic sex scene and Smith’s proclivity to describe his strong female characters as leopardesses; after the fourth or fifth occurrence one no longer has to wonder what images arouse Mr. Smith.
However, for a thriller, Wild Justice is a very good read. There is some technical and geopolitical detail about counter terrorism in the 1970’s. The hero is of the unflagging and never disappointing hero type. The action rockets along, especially the opening hostage scene, almost a novel unto itself. Overall, Wild Justice supports its genre and makes for a good read. (less)
Sometimes, a good novel doesn’t know when to stop. Gone With the Wind comes to mind, as Scarlett is crying for Rhett’s departure and the reader is gna...moreSometimes, a good novel doesn’t know when to stop. Gone With the Wind comes to mind, as Scarlett is crying for Rhett’s departure and the reader is gnashing her teeth wondering what will happen when Scarlett “thinks about it tomorrow.”
Though The Burning Shores, by Wilbur Smith, isn’t in the same category as Margaret Mitchell’s classic, the book ends abruptly, leaving enchanted readers eager for a sequel. Fortunately, Smith wrote almost a dozen novels on the African exploits of the same family that the protagonist married into, and so one can hope to find a continuation of her fascinating story in another novel.
Centaine is a young Frenchwoman caught up in the horror of World War I. She nearly marries and has a son by a deceased airman of South African descent and after her home is destroyed goes to Africa to present her unborn child to his father’s family. However, on the way there her ship sinks and she is left to the mercy of the West African desert. After many adventures she is discovered by a white search party and taken back to her family. And here the book could end. But there is another hundred pages describing Centaine’s return and subsequent activities. At the end of these pages the reader is left wondering what will happen next in the grand drama of Centaine’s life.
The Burning Shores is a drama of monumental scale. Set against the sweeping backdrop of Africa, this book takes on a saga-like quality. The heroine rises above near inhuman challenges and comes out not only alive, but successful. While it is improbable that any one person would be miraculously snatched from the jaws of death not once, but twice, the reader still finder herself cheering Centaine along and hoping for the best for her and her child.
If one has the time and the inclination, I would recommend acquiring all the Courtney novels of Wilbur Smith, finding a comfortable chair and losing oneself in their world for a month or two. And while there are no pretensions of The Burning Shore and subsequent novels being scholarly works, one might also learn a thing or two about African life and history. (less)
In 1906, two baby boys are born in wildly different circumstances: one in the comfort of Boston’s best private hospital surrounded by doctors and ador...moreIn 1906, two baby boys are born in wildly different circumstances: one in the comfort of Boston’s best private hospital surrounded by doctors and adoring relatives and the other in a Polish forest accidentally discovered by a hunter. So begin the lives of William Kane and Abel Rosnovski. Because the chapters alternate between William’s and Abel’s lives, one might first think that this novel will be about two boys who switch places at birth, or shortly thereafter. When that doesn’t happen the reader may then think that the novel will be an illustration of the hardworking tendencies of the poor and the indolence of the upper classes. Again, that doesn’t happen. However, even when all traditional plot lines are exhausted, Jeffrey Archer still keeps his readers engaged in the lives of William and Abel.
Kane and Abel isn’t a rags to riches story, nor does it have an overt political message. Both the rich and poor characters are intelligent, hardworking and likeable. They are faced with varying levels of adversity and setbacks as they strive to amass their fortunes. It takes nearly half the book to discover the connection between their two lives: a vendetta held by the hotelier on the banker because of a loan refused during the crash of ’29. Even with this connection the men only deliberately meet over the phone; their chance interactions over the years go unnoticed by either until they are nearing death.
Archer inspires his readers with Kane and Abel. The hard work of both characters elicits a huge monetary payback. But inspiration also comes when one pauses at the book’s end and thinks about the stranger on the corner or the shopkeeper or fellow library patron who may be effecting and influencing his life in ways he can’t even imagine yet. It may inspire the reader to be kinder to strangers. For this and for Archer’s signature readability, Kane and Abel is a highly recommended read. (less)
When the film The Amber Spyglass was released a few years ago, there was a great hue and cry. Churches all denominations vilified the film as anti-rel...moreWhen the film The Amber Spyglass was released a few years ago, there was a great hue and cry. Churches all denominations vilified the film as anti-religion and anti-God. Never mind that the book on which the film was based had been published in 2000 and won many accolades in 2001. Apparently the clergy no longer reads. However, if the film is as explicit as the book is when showing a decrepit Authority/God who is so feeble He can be destroyed by a minute’s exposure to the wind and rain, it is easy to see how a conservative, reactionary Church would decry such a film.
The Amber Spyglass is the pinnacle of Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Where The Northern Lights plods and The Subtle Knife walks, The Amber Spyglass runs. The characters are fully developed, the plot twists and weaves throughout worlds and the loose ends are all finally tied together. Pullman’s ideas about the soul, mind and body are fully explained after two books of incomplete hinting. These ideas are unorthodox but they are also creative and thought-provoking. He says that consciousness arrives when matter becomes self-aware. Therefore there is no one Creator, everyone creates him or herself. Because there is no single creator, there is no higher authority. All conscious beings are equal. The book also destroys the idea of heaven, hell and salvation. Matter longs to be reunited with the rest of the atoms in the universe so after one dies and the body returns to ashes and dust, the stuff of the soul breaks away to fill up the cosmos. Conventionally religious parents might not want their children to read these books because they will cause children to think about and possibly question orthodox teachings. This makes the entire trilogy worth reading. (less)
Chowringhee, by Sankar, is a story about life in a hotel. While reading the book the reader will quickly learn that this book is about life in a hotel...moreChowringhee, by Sankar, is a story about life in a hotel. While reading the book the reader will quickly learn that this book is about life in a hotel and that books about life in a hotel are very interesting. He will then be reminded of this fact throughout the rest of the book.
Beside this one annoyance, Chowringhee is a very enjoyable book. A colourful cast of characters moves in and out of the story just as guests move in and out of a hotel’s revolving door. While it is a novel with a few main characters appearing through the entire book, it could be just as easy to present Chowringheeas a series of short stories. People come into the hotel and the narrator observes their habits and histories. Then they leave the hotel and their lives either vanish or degrade. Some characters live and die within the hotel’s four walls. The hotel takes on the characteristics of a self-supporting microcosm. Some of the romance that the author originally intended in lost on the modern reader though. Travelling, flying and staying in hotels was the province of the elite in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when this book was set and written. Nowadays it seems that everyone is travelling for business or pleasure. There is very little romance staying in a Super 8 after flying Southwest. Therefore, the modern reader may not be able to identify with the concept of “staying in a hotel.” But because the characters are drawn in such colourful detail, their lives will continue to entertain readers for years to come. (less)
Some books are enjoyable purely for their nostalgic value. I imagine that’s why a rash of memoirs have been cropping up in recent years, first salutin...moreSome books are enjoyable purely for their nostalgic value. I imagine that’s why a rash of memoirs have been cropping up in recent years, first saluting the Greatest Generation and now reminiscing about the 60’s and 70’s. Tin Fish, by Sudeep Chakravarti is a novel of nostalgia. In India, anyone you meet who has survived public boarding school is full of rosy memories of times had and friends made. Tin Fish memorializes Class 10 of 1979 at Mayo College.
Besides the obvious episodes about girls, teachers, friends and students, Chakravarti uses a very schoolboy-esque language to add to the nostalgia factor of the book. Not only do the characters talk in the slang of the day, but so does the narrator. The sentences are long enough to risk being run-on and the syntax is rather free form. This makes for a quick, but not particularly in-depth read. Also, as the reader screams through the story at break-neck speed, he has a tendency to miss the small specks of important detail the author occasionally drops in among the slang and youthful angst. Despite the literary shortcomings, Tin Fish is a must read for anyone who looks back fondly at his time attending or teaching at an Indian boarding school. (less)
The Subtle Knife is the second book in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Like all middle books of a trilogy, things get worse (this follows the...moreThe Subtle Knife is the second book in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. Like all middle books of a trilogy, things get worse (this follows the same principle as act IV of a five act play). The Subtle Knife also introduces a new protagonist and a sense of urgency lacking in the first book, The Northern Lights.
For the above mentioned reasons, I am incredibly glad. Yes, The Northern Lights had some creative constructs on which the world was built. However, its protagonist was an irrational, headstrong brat and as an adult reader I couldn’t identify with her in the least. I was very disappointed, especially since the series came with strong recommendations from friends and literature authorities alike. However, the new protagonist is more mature in his outlook; I can identify with him more and therefore I am looking forward to concluding the trilogy with The Amber Spyglass. (less)
At the risk of a wholly autobiographical review, I feel the need to introduce Monica Ali’s Brick Lane with some personal back story. Since December of...moreAt the risk of a wholly autobiographical review, I feel the need to introduce Monica Ali’s Brick Lane with some personal back story. Since December of 2007, my reading was almost entirely confined to non-fiction of the historical/political variety. While interesting, it was also heavy and dry. I eschewed fiction beyond brief forays into a mystery or a romance. Then, in February of 2009, I picked up Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, anticipating the same enjoyment I felt while reading The Satanic Verses. However, I put the book down after ninety pages. To Rushdie’s credit, the world he created was incredibly consuming. But I felt indignant about the care he lavished on the significance of the size of a character’s nose when it could have been better utilized to effect change. Because I admire Rushdie’s work so much, I realized the fault was mine and that I had so far distanced myself from the world of literary fiction that I had no idea when or if I could return.
Brick Lane was a wonderful return to literary fiction. The story centers on the relationships a Bangladeshi wife has with her family and neighbours after being transplanted to London. Ali uses carefully chosen adjectives to draw her character in mosaic: corns and yellowing toenails versus a gold chain snaking through a thicket of chest hair, for example. There is no attempt on the author’s part to write a “great novel.” However, since she tells her story with a simple and unassuming manner, one cannot help but get sucked into the tale. Though the drama is largely domestic and the main character sometimes maddeningly self-effacing, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is a wonderful book with which to return to the world of literature. (less)
Truly readable books cannot be savoured slowly. Like ice cream on a hot summer’s day they must be quickly consumed or risk losing most of their pleasu...moreTruly readable books cannot be savoured slowly. Like ice cream on a hot summer’s day they must be quickly consumed or risk losing most of their pleasure. So it was with The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Immediately, one is drawn to the audacious narrator who is cheekily writing a letter to Wen Jiabao. One can’t help but be taken along for the irreverent ride through Bihar – aptly renamed the Darkness for literary libel purposes – and into the land of servant-class Delhi. Looking through the eyes of the narrator in a Delhi more foreign than most English readers will ever see, the habits and institutions of the wealthy Delhites are shown in a scornful, cynical light that the reader should be moved, if not to mend his ways, at least to chuckle at their sometimes absurdity.
Depending on the sensibility of the reader, The White Tiger can be viewed either as social commentary or humorous story a literary step above beach reading. That may be the main reason for the book’s popularity. Since it is written in English, its intended audience is not India’s poor, even though the protagonist comes from that class. So the average middle class reader who employs servants rather than is one, is given the option – due to the book’s humor – to view the book as reality or parody.
Regardless, the call for change and the eradication of rich and corrupt India cannot be ignored. India may never get her October Revolution, but she won’t get the 21st century’s version of the Industrial Revolution either, so long as half her people are mired in ignorance and superstition. If everything else in The White Tiger is dismissed as diversionary, the hero’s longing for education and his acknowledgement of education being the surest road to prosperity should not be ignored. (less)
Ever since the stunning commercial success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, writer after writer has tried to pull Brown’s sword of success from the s...moreEver since the stunning commercial success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, writer after writer has tried to pull Brown’s sword of success from the stone of mediocrity. In order to convince themselves their efforts are working, their book jackets are decorated with quotes comparing them favourably to Mr. Brown and claiming ascendency to his throne. No matter how these upstarts toil, they will never receive the same acclaim or cash as Dan Brown for one simple reason: he was a trailblazer and they are camp followers. In a world full of books on Templars, kabbalah and everything in between, no work of mere fiction can hope to rival the success of The Da Vinci Code. Only a work of literature could do that.
Sam Bourne’s The Righteous Men is, alas, not a work of literature. It is a tightly woven piece of fiction with all the elements common to mystic mysteries: kabbalah, Christians, Crown Heights Hassidism and murder. The hero is reporter struggling to free his wife kidnappers with the help of his best friend and college sweetheart. Bourne’s pure mystery writing is gripping and keeps the reader guessing. Once the mystical elements are added he flounders. He fails to create a sense of awe. The reader can’t believe in the otherworldly elements of the book – in this case that the deaths of thirty-six men will end the world – because the protagonist himself never comes around to believing it. The Da Vinci Code created doubt and wonder simultaneously. For this reason the story stays with the reader long after the book is closed. The Righteous Men can’t even do that for the protagonist of its own book and is therefore confined to the shelves of mediocrity. (less)
Gurcharan Das’s The Elephant Paradigm is a collection of essays about the India of the 1990’s. As with all collections, some essays are stronger than...moreGurcharan Das’s The Elephant Paradigm is a collection of essays about the India of the 1990’s. As with all collections, some essays are stronger than others. In this mixed bag of a book, Das talks about India’s economic opening, her protectionist past, the benefits of meditation, needed education reforms and everything in between. This slim volume, less than 300 pages, manages to touch on a wide array of Indian public and private life, but each brush is so fleeting that it is difficult to get a firm grasp on any one topic. The book also lacked an overarching thesis which led one to question the reasoning behind the topic selection. The book wasn’t about politics, economics, management or culture. It was a little bit of all these things. In this case, quantity won out over quality.
If I were to create a wish list for this book I would first wish for more time spent discussing the role of women in rebuilding India. Das barely gives women a five page essay. I would also wish for more discussion on the viability of self-help groups and micro finance in helping India’s economic transformation. I wish Das’s complaints about India’s sluggish bureaucracy had been lessened; blaming the bureaucracy for all problems seems to be a favourite middle-class past time. I was also very disappointed to find the last essay of the book dismissing the environmental movement as a bunch of irrational animists who wish to create a new licence-raj. Such close-minded thinking ended the book on a sour note.
The Elephant Paradigmis yet another non-fiction book offering advice on life in New India. However, it’s disjointed style and prejudiced editorializing puts it much lower on the to-read list than the works of Tully or Muruthy. (less)
Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood sulks in the uneasy twilight of world literature. The likes of Sir Gawain, Piers Plowman and Beowulf have had the good fort...moreHenry Gilbert’s Robin Hood sulks in the uneasy twilight of world literature. The likes of Sir Gawain, Piers Plowman and Beowulf have had the good fortune to have their tales told in a clear, definitive voice and then retold by scrupulous and concise editors. Robin Hood’s story was told and retold by so many balladeers and then moulded into whatever shape his editors thought would fit the sensibilities of the times. Therefore it is difficult to find Robin Hood in his original alliterative verse and doubly difficult to respect the historical truth of his story.
Unfortunately Henry Gilbert’s retelling does the legend of Robin Hood no service. His tales stand in a kind of literary limbo. They were first published in 1912, but language and style he used inaccurately aped the supposed concept of medieval without having any scholarly basis. The “thees,” “thous,” and liberal helping of archaic terms served no purpose but to turn the leisure reader off from the book. This is reminiscent of the mistake that Charles and Mary Lamb made in their Tales from Shakespeare. Rather than preserve the beauty of the original language only the difficulty remains.
The one area in which Gilbert redeems himself is in honesty. Even this praise may only come through hindsight. The mores of the society at the turn of the last century were not as squeamish about bloodshed as this one. Today, material for children must be scrubbed, sanitized and made harmless. Today, Robin Hood sings and dances or is portrayed by a cartoon fox. He bests his enemies by befuddling them, rather than beheading them. Gilbert’s Robin Hood injures and kills his enemies when necessary. Life in Sherwood Forest is still unbelievably pastoral, but at least the shadow of the hand of death hovers over these men of violence.
To one interested in the tales of Robin Hood, I would first recommend some cinematic escapism through Men in Tights and Disney’s conceptualization. Stay far away from the Costner version! Then, if one’s interest is truly peaked, hunt down the original ballad verses and work through the language. Henry Gilbert’s 1912 retelling simply isn’t worth the effort. (less)
India in the Mirror of Foreign Diplomatic Archives, edited by Jean-Max Zins and Gilles Boquérat has the distinction of being a readable work of schola...moreIndia in the Mirror of Foreign Diplomatic Archives, edited by Jean-Max Zins and Gilles Boquérat has the distinction of being a readable work of scholarly non-fiction. Its collection of essays regarding Indian foreign policy from 1947 to approximately 1971 returns to the same points over and over, so even if the subject matter may be confusing, the discussion of it is not.
Because the daily headlines emphasize the present, it can be easy for one to forget that the state of the world today is but a single point on a graph of flux. Yesterday’s enemies are today’s friends and vice versa. Looking at India’s foreign policy in the first twenty-five years of the country’s existence is a potent reminder of the shifting alliances that comprise international relations.
The countries that are chiefly discussed in the book are India, China, the US, the UK, France and the USSR, with Pakistan always glaring menacingly from the shadows. India’s relationship with France and the UK are fairly easy to define during this period. The Beijing-Moscow-Washington-Delhi quadrangle is markedly more difficult.
The Indo-French relationship has had two phases. First, the countries were adversarial over colonialism. However, by the early 1960’s, when France signed over Pondicherry and its other sub-continental footholds and also recognized Algerian demands for independence the relationship quickly became benign. Since then the Indo-French relationship rarely collides because its trajectories are different, sometimes parallel, but always different.
India, after the British to quit it, still wanted to retain their advantageous trade relationship. India elected to remain a part of the Commonwealth in 1949, and fostered economic ties throughout the early stages of the Cold War. Because Britain had a long history on the sub-continent she tended to take a more regional view of the Indo-Pak conflict than the US or the USSR. Britain and India’s post-colonial relationship was largely peaceful, though India did speak out against Britain’s imperial posturing in the 1956 Suez crisis.
The China-India-US-USSR saga goes a little something like this: Newly independent India adopted a policy of non-alignment. The USSR felt a neutral India could still serve its expansionist ambitions and courted India. The US felt “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” and chose instead to arm Pakistan as its regional ally against Communist expansion. When Mao won out in China, India was one of the earliest countries to recognize the People’s Republic. It decided to befriend its neighbour rather than attack it. This policy worked until 1962, when India was embarrassed by a lighting strike and subsequent unilateral ceasefire by China in the Ladakh region. Shortly after this, the US saw a Sino-Soviet rift would be advantageous for the spread of democracy and began to foster a relationship with China. China gravitated toward the US and Pakistan leaving India to turn to the Soviets for aid and arms assistance. This quicksand of shifting alliances is why the world oldest and largest democracies couldn’t work together until after the Cold War.
India in the Mirror of Foreign Diplomatic Archives may not be a page turner but it does an excellent job of clarifying sub-continental foreign policy during the heyday of the Cold War. (less)
It is convenient for authors that history has given us some eternal bad guys. Stalin, General Mao, Nero, Attila, and of course, our favorite bad guy,...more It is convenient for authors that history has given us some eternal bad guys. Stalin, General Mao, Nero, Attila, and of course, our favorite bad guy, the one with no vindicating qualities at all: Adolph Hitler. No author can go wrong when he uses Hitler or a Hitler-esque figure as his villain. Neo-Nazis have a universally approved stamp of evil. And even if the occasional reader feels a certain amount of sympathy for the skinheads, public opinion keeps his mouth shut expect for in the most select of company. Therefore, Johnathan Kellerman’s Time Bomb started out with a winning formula. It has other elements as well that contributed to a page-turning readability. It dragged politicians through the mud and exposed not only their sexual and boozing corruption that has become familiar public slander since Monica Lewinsky et al., but also gave imaginative fodder for an even deeper hatred of our elected officials. He then adds a few truly likeable conscientious characters: good cop, self-aware shrink, and committed principal There is history, intrigue, a touch of sex, and a hint of comedy and poof! – a page-turner is born. I won’t pretend to laud Time Bomb with unwarranted Nobel laurels. There is nothing brilliant about the writing. An odd metaphor here and there, the parody of the horrid writing that came out of the ‘60’s. Some new information on Wanasee II, which I had thought went by a different name (some research is warranted). However, it nothing more than a good thriller with a surprisingly long dénouement. I would recommend it to a friend going on a long plane ride, but not one looking to expand his mind. (less)