This is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the eaThis is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the early 1920s, he is forever moving between elation over this wonderful world, and despair over the fickle indifference of his great love, Edith. He tries to assuage his disappointment with liaisons with other women, but to no avail. This third-person narrative alternates with a first-person intrusive narrator who upbraids Edith for her indifference to The Robber and sounds off on any number of peripheral matters in a seemingly offhand if not random fashion. These "arabesques," as W.G. Sebald calls them, might also be thought of as a kind of ur-magic realism. As if that weren't enough, late in the text it is announced by the author that he and The Robber have teamed up to create the present text. This reader was reminded of Herman Melville's Pierre: or, the Ambiguities, though it should be said that The Robber is a laugh riot compared to that formal novel and far more, indeed almost obsessively, discursive....more
Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don'Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don't know, before finishing remaining essays....more
At 106 pages, The Fire Next Time is a brief snapshot of U.S. race relations in 1963. Like a balance sheet it concisely details the nation's racial strAt 106 pages, The Fire Next Time is a brief snapshot of U.S. race relations in 1963. Like a balance sheet it concisely details the nation's racial strengths and (considerable) shortcomings. It was published one year before LBJ's Great Society program passed Congress, which, for the first time in the nation's history, sought to address longstanding racial injustices. Baldwin describes the unrelenting degradation faced by black Americans, both white indifference and murderous hostility toward them, in a spare, unadorned prose whose effect is harrowing. At the time of its publication it must have scared bigoted white people shitless. Yet it was also a prescription for change, and much of the change it calls for has come to pass. That is not to say that today we are without racial problems. Black Lives Matter-- that's irrefutable--but if you want to know how truly god awful it was in the bad old days, this is the book, one of the few, that you must read....more
This economic history is, as far as it goes, excellent. The main thesis is ultra simple: nations must develop inclusive economic and political instituThis economic history is, as far as it goes, excellent. The main thesis is ultra simple: nations must develop inclusive economic and political institutions if they are to achieve prosperity. Such political institutions include fair and free elections, an independent judiciary, uncorrupt legislative and executive branches etc etc. Inclusive economic institutions include financial controls such as the Fed, the SEC, various trust breaking mechanisms, and so forth. The authors say all of these things are mutually reinforcing. In the US, for instance, all three main governmental institutions at the federal level hold each other in check. This is also more or less true in Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Botswana. Yes, that Botswana. The stories of Botswana -- and the rest of post-colonial Africa -- are ones I have not come across before and for which I am especially grateful.
Nations with inclusive economic and political institutions allow something called "creative destruction." This is what happens when new technologies appear and cause a redistribution of wealth. Perhaps the most recent example of creative destruction has been the impact of computers and the internet. So many industries have been upset by these new technologies: publishing, the music industry, retail stores, manufacturing, etc etc. Nations which do not have inclusive economic and political institutions are called "extractive." An extractive nation is one in which an elite prospers from the misfortune of the rest of the population. One example of this is the post-colonial African nation of Sierra Leone. When the British left Sierra Leone, and it was thought that the extractive mechanisms they had put in place would be abolished, just the opposite happened. Local strong men came along and upped the ante. This had the effect of disincentizing entrepreneurs. After all, why work hard if 90% of one's output will be seized by the junta? Moreover, such extractive nations will not permit creative destruction because it threatens to undermine the power of the governing elite. So the extractive states tend to be backward because they shun new technologies. Throughout the book though examples from antiquity are adduced -- Rome, Mayan civilization, for instance, both extractive -- the authors are mostly concerned with what happened starting with the Industrial Revolution onward. They show how the English Civil War and subsequent Glorious Revolution set the stage for the growth of inclusive political and economic institutions in England and how these became mutually reinforcing over time. The book is compelling. I hope people living in these extractive nations will get a translation because it is so eye-opening. But that's unlikely, isnt it? Since a major feature of extractive nations is suppression of the media, which loves transparency.
This is a view of history, on the other hand, that does not question its foundations. It's a great cheering section for capitalism generally. But there's a huge problem with this economic-growth-at-all-costs mentality. It may have been fine for a century or so but now it's no longer tenable. In fact, it's killing us: climate change, loss of biodiversity, global deforestation; our oceans are covered, by one recent estimate, with 480 billion cubic tons of plastic. GDP is the wrong measure of our "progress" now. (Though we are only killing ourselves. The earth will do fine without us. It's got billions of years before the sun explodes. That's plenty of time for a post-Anthropocene explosion of species.) We need new sustainable economic models. From what I can see these have been extremely slow to emerge. That's the only problem with inclusive politics: they're incremental. I was going to say politics moves at a glacial pace, but that's no longer even a valid cliché anymore, is it? So the book, while being a captivating history of how capitalism has worked historically, offers no solutions for how it might change. New models are badly needed. If, that is, we aren't already past the ecological tipping point....more
This is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story ofThis is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story of Simón Bolívar--he who liberated South America from Spanish colonial tyranny--and his retreat from public life just prior to his death. The great trick of the novel is to make condensed passages of historical summary ring with life through the recollections of the dying General. Predictably perhaps he obsessively catalogs his enemies' perfidies which on some level seem to be the very disease which is killing him, though it's actually TB. Such is the loyalty of the man's officers that just before his death he sends them off on various guerilla missions to undermine the governments of his enemies. Despite the sure knowledge of his impending death he seeks to promote insurrection instead of harmony. It is for this reason that John Lynch, one of Bolívar's biographers, detests the popular idea of the man as the "George Washington of South America." Truly, he was nothing of the kind. He allowed himself to be named Liberator and Dictator of Peru and through the Ocaña Convention named himself Bolivia's "president for life" with the ability to pass on the title. He needlessly promulgated multiple contradictory edicts. He was against popular representative government. Though, paradoxically, he believed in a US-style federalist union for South America, he was incapable of putting goals for the growth of inclusive democratic institutions above his petty enmities, as Washington did with such aplomb time after time.
(N.B. Washington was a Virginia plantation owner who, though he knew the institution of slavery was wrong, freed his slaves only upon his death in 1799. Bolívar however manumitted all the slaves of South America, including his own, in 1816. U.S. slaves were finally freed only in 1865.)
We also meet his longtime, forebearing lover, Manuela Sáenz, and find her to be as formidable a character as the General himself. At one point some weeks after after the General and his retinue have traveled into exile on a cortege of barges down the Magdalena, she incites civil unrest back in Santa Fe de Bogata against his enemies:
In an attempt to make her life impossible, the Ministry of the Interior had asked her to turn over the [General's] archives she had in her care. She refused and set in motion a campaign of provocations that drove the government mad. In the company of two of her warrior slavewomen [manumitted] she fomented scandals, distributed pamphlets glorifying the General, and erased charcoal slogans scrawled on public walls. It was common knowledge that she entered barracks wearing the uniform of a colonel and was apt to take part in the soldiers' fiestas as in the officers' conspiracies. The most serious rumor was that right under Urdaneta's nose she was promoting an armed rebellion to reestablish the absolute power of the General.
So a beautifully written if dense narrative that satisfies on multiple levels. Do read it. One final note, there's no magic realism here as in The Autumn of the Patriarch or One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the narrative is nonchronological which demands an attentive reader. This is no in-flight or beach read! I found it deeply satisfying....more
I'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing isI'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing is always hard to find no matter its form. But this particular work is terrific. It's insightful. We see how Georgia O'Keeffe's talent developed early in life. In 1903-04 Georgia and her many sisters were driven some miles in a horse and buggy from their Wisconsin farm to art lessons, an almost unheard of extravagance in those still largely frontier days. We follow O'Keeffe during her subsequent study at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York (57th St.), and Columbia University (Teacher's College), also in New York. She becomes a most unorthodox teacher of art in Virginia and, later, Texas. It is while there, in West Texas, that she discovers Big Sky country, the American southwest, whose strange beauty was to possess her for the rest of her life. But between the Texas teaching and the full-time move to New Mexico there was an interval in New York when she was discovered by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallerist, who championed her, scandalously left his wife and married her, a woman 25 years younger than himself. For about twenty years she lives with the garrulous Stieglitz in New York. In the spring and summer they shift activities to the Stieglitz family compound upstate on Lake George. Here the great man is surrounded by his large family and circle of admirers. For Georgia, the East ultimately comes to seem a dead place. She yearns for southwest. A change is made. Instead of going to Lake George for the summer, she will go to New Mexico, where she will paint prolifically. (She was virtually blocked in the East.) There she discovers Ghost Ranch, and a few years later the house at Abiquiu. Steiglitz doesn't like the arrangement but he knows she will not paint otherwise, so her lets her go. The arrangement continues until his death in 1946, when, after three years spent settling his estate, she moves west full time. In the 1960s, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, she undergoes a ludicrous fall from critical favor. The absurd interpretations by the critics of the day are well represented, and hilarious they are too for being so fantastically off the mark. In the early 1970s she is justly returned to her proper status with a series of big shows in major U.S. cities. I found her will an astonishing thing to contemplate. Unlike most people, and this was her greatest gift in my view, perhaps greater than her artistic mastery, she knew what she wanted from life, almost from day one, and she doggedly went out and got it. This focus is at the core of her spare way of life and stripped down esthetic. Most of all she had this immense appetite for solitude. For most of us, with our various codependencies, that's hard to imagine. But it was fascinating to see it manifest in the life of this woman whose character seems set from the moment of birth. She is an astonishing historical figure largely because of her output of a timeless body of art which has defied all critical reductions. The author has done an excellent job. The biography's far more penetrating than I had thought it could be. And this is done for the most part by showing and quotation, not by that awful sort of psychologizing that is actually a projection of the writer's own wishes. Warmly recommended....more
For a long time it was believed that scientists could only study quantum mechanics at absolute zero in their labs. Yet in recent years excellent evideFor a long time it was believed that scientists could only study quantum mechanics at absolute zero in their labs. Yet in recent years excellent evidence of quantum mechanics at work in humans, birds, plants and other living things has come to the fore. Who knew? This book is a fascinating and very accessible introduction for the general reader. It uses virtually no math. Rather, the writers possess a neat gift for metaphor. Stephen Jay Gould had this gift too, and while Life on the Edge isn't SJG, that paragon of science writing, it does the job and does it well....more
These subtle, fascinating case studies are psychoanalysis condensed. They run about 6 or so pages each. Everything inessential has been stripped away.These subtle, fascinating case studies are psychoanalysis condensed. They run about 6 or so pages each. Everything inessential has been stripped away. We get the problem, the diagnosis, and the resolution or its semblance very quickly. There's the nine year old with autism whose hyper-acting out includes spitting in his analyst's [the author's] face five times a week for a year and a half. How far can one's compassion go? Or the HIV-positive patient who can do little more than sleep during his sessions. When the author presents his case at a conference, an American doctor asks "Why are you wasting your time with this patient? He's going to die. Why not help someone who's got a future." The author is outraged. And as it turns out the protease-inhibitors arrive in time and the patient does not die. The essays are so lean, so fleet of foot and this is somehow connected – this brevity, this concision – to their ability to move us. I cannot recommend this slim volume highly enough. It's a near miraculous feat of writing....more
I am an Ishiguro enthusiast if ever there was one. I have read his oeuvre. That's why it pains a little me to say that The Buried Giant is a disappoinI am an Ishiguro enthusiast if ever there was one. I have read his oeuvre. That's why it pains a little me to say that The Buried Giant is a disappointment. I say this not because I think Ishiguro's skills as a novelist are one whit duller than usual. But because I did not care for the story or its characters. They did not engage me. He's going after a new readership with this book. He's going after the vast fantasy market. That's fine. A writer must write what he must write. Just don't expect me to tag along. In abeyance here is Ishiguro's wonderful sense of humor. The book is stolidly earnest in its depiction of an ogre infested, post Arthurian, post Roman Britain.
The first three chapters are straightforward chronology. I suppose I'm used not only to Ishiguro's wit, but also to his keen ability to shift about in time. I understand that a straightforward, unwavering chronology to open the book will have a greater appeal to less nimble readers, but for me — a reader of subtle capacities — it was an absolute slog. Only with the introduction of the boy, Edwin, does the narrative start to deepen, but it never achieves true Ishiguroian depths. What do I care about this dead world of British myth?* I've never really cared for Malory's Round Table tales. They're terribly one-dimensional. I tried to read a recent treatment by Peter Ackroyd but it was just so shallow storywise, and redundant. Ishiguro returns the favor. How many times do we have to be reminded that it's better to forget than to remember? Not to mention the interminable politeness of the chivalric code, which, if you do a little reading, you will discover was the exception rather than the rule. Most knights were out for booty and they murdered anyone who got in the way of that goal. Unhindered knights turned Europe into a charnal house. Read Sir Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades or Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium. Anyway, for me the novel's a dud, though I suspect it will appeal to many new readers. Recommended with reservations. I suppose it's mandatory if you've read all of Ishiguro.
P.S. I disagree with Ms. Kakutani's view that Ishiguro's prose here is "ham handed." It is not. He writes as vividly as ever, it's just that the story is a bore. He had to stumble sooner or later. Let's be happy he's gotten this one behind him....more
Highly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The langHighly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The language is spritely, sullen, erotic by turns. The old gringo, American journalist and author Ambrose Bierce, is a bitter man come to Mexico seeking death at the hands of the revolution. He meets the younger rebel General Tomas Arroyo whose innate machismo turns his relationship with the old gringo into a Game of Manhood. A game only the general seems to be playing. The old gringo fearlessly marches straight into the most dangerous faceoffs with the Federales. He seems invulnerable, god-like. The bullets don't so much as graze him. Arroyo's rebels marvel at him. Arroyo resents the gringo for stealing his thunder. In a comandeered train the general, his army, and the gringo cross the desert for a day and a night to the famous Miranda Hacienda. It was here that Arroyo was fathered by Señor Miranda. It was here Arroyo grew up and came to know intimately his nation's "aristocracy." It is in the destruction of the hacienda that the general seeks to make a grand statement. On arrival he and the old gringo find the white woman -- the "gringa" -- arrived only hours earlier from the U.S. to teach English to the Miranda children, long since flown the coop. Her name is Harriet Winslow. She becomes Arroyo's lover. One feels she could use the workout. She positively screams uptight white anglo-saxon protestant, and the destruction of personal property is incomprehensible to her. She discounts the long history of class oppression in a trice. Somehow she feels -- laughably -- even in the absence of the departed Mirandas, that she is responsible not only for stopping the destruction of the hacienda, but also for seeing to its restoration. (She sets the peons to ridiculously whitewashing the place.) Yet like certain characters in Anita Brookner's oeuvre, she knows she's missed much of life in her 31 years. The old gringo sees her submission to Arroyo only in terms of the general's machismo. He does not for a minute imagine the attraction this man of action might hold for Harriet. The sex is electric. As I've said elsewhere, I am no fan of sex in literature. It's almost always badly done -- but not here. Here the sex is integral, it works to push the story forward; whereas, usually, all the action of the fiction must stop for nookie time. It's almost too long, the sex. Fuentes pushes it about ten pages too far. But one can see why. It's working so well. The novel's onieric bent seamlessly blends backstory, dialogue both thought and spoken, hopes and dreams, you name it. The prose is consistently dazzling. You must read it....more
Interesting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now knowInteresting. Gould wrote these essays around the time that the Alvarez meteoric impact theory was being published. This is something that we now know to be beyond doubt. But at the time, when it was just being introduced, the theory, and especially its association with the Cretaceous extinction, was not immediately embraced on the part of paleontologists. This led Luis Alvarez, no doubt in his frustration, to call paleontologists "not very good scientists." Oh dear! But Gould's coverage of the developing story is very fine and can be followed here and in his subsequent books, especially The Flamingo's Smile....more
This book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. QuiteThis book is 30 years old and still highly readable. It's about biology, more specifically about Darwinian evolution and the history of science. Quite good and gripping writing explaining what is still pretty much the current state of our knowledge.
Gould has a fondness for rehabilitating scientists who were wrong for interesting reasons. In this volume those figures include: Edward Tyson (who sought to place chimpanzees next to humans as the next link in the great chain of being theory), the Rev. William Buckland (who misinterpreted evidence of past glaciation as proof of The Flood), Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (who straddled the epigenicist/preformationist embryology debate of the 18th century), and the father of taxonomy himself, Carolus Linnaeus (whose work was also skewed by the false great chain of being theory).
Gould is always careful to point out that no science is without its limiting cultural or social preconceptions. Scientific knowledge, moreover, is conditional, never fixed, and changes with our ever modifying understanding of it. He writes:
Good arguments don't provide nearly as much insight into human thought, for we can simply say that we have seen nature aright and have properly pursued the humble task of mapping things accurately and objectively. But bad arguments must be defended in the face of nature's opposition, a task that takes some doing. The analysis of this "doing" often provides us with insight into the ideology or thought processes of an age, if not into the modes of human reasoning itself. (p. 284)