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
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 him for how can he shine by comparison? 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 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)
Fascinating. Life on another planet, virtually. So different is it from the Earth most of us know. Unsummarizable. And to think the author was 13 whenFascinating. Life on another planet, virtually. So different is it from the Earth most of us know. Unsummarizable. And to think the author was 13 when he wrote it....more
I enjoy these collections of Natural Science magazine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, but this is not his best one. Of the five I've read so far -- thereI enjoy these collections of Natural Science magazine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, but this is not his best one. Of the five I've read so far -- there are 10 altogether -- this is my least favorite. At his best SJG's essays play off a number of seemingly unrelated topics and then slowly, often dazzlingly, he weaves the disparate threads together. He still does that here. And the best essays, "The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague" and "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" are right up there with his very best. But too often the essays are flat and lacking in the discursive fun that is his hallmark. I intend to read the other five books. But if you're going to read only one let me recommend either Dinosaur in a Haystack or Bully for Brontosaurus. Gould's Wonderful Life, about the Burgess Shale, is brilliant, too, but it's a stand-alone title and not part of the essay series. See my review for each of these....more
Just a brief note before I begin. Among my friends The Royal Family is either five stars or one star. So I take it this is not the kind of book one feJust a brief note before I begin. Among my friends The Royal Family is either five stars or one star. So I take it this is not the kind of book one feels ambivalent about. Well, I loved his Europe Central and have high hopes for this one. I understand he's particularly good at writing about sex, which is very hard to do. We'll see.
Quickly fell off the go cart. Will give it another try. Enjoyed what I read but was distracted by other books....more
One of the few writers I have read who can show sex convincingly on the page, so that it reinforces character and extends action, and doesn't become aOne of the few writers I have read who can show sex convincingly on the page, so that it reinforces character and extends action, and doesn't become a narrative sinkhole in which entropy prevails.
Depressingly great. One of those books one knows one could never write yet still one wishes -- pointlessly -- that one could do so.
Laden with vivid detail. It moves almost flawlessly, from sequence to sequence with nary a foot put wrong in terms of diction or tone.
Relentless storytelling, like diamonds pouring endlessly from a sack. Enormous reading pleasure. A bit too lacrhmose toward the end for my taste, but this is a quibble. On the whole a shattering novel despite it conventional structure.
A book about wonder and a wonderful book. The story of the Burgess Shale -- from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later -- iA book about wonder and a wonderful book. The story of the Burgess Shale -- from its initial misinterpretation to its reassessment 50 years later -- is mind blowing. This limestone outcropping high in the Canadian Rockies near British Columbia — which was once a near equatorial climate at sea level 530 million years ago but now sits at an altitude of 8,000 feet — has revealed about 150 previously unknown arthropod genera and entirely new species with anatomies that would be unimaginable to us today had Charles Doolittle Walcott not discovered them in 1909.
Gould calls these animals with their diverse anatomies "weird wonders" and explains that their broad proliferation was possible because the middle Cambrian was a time of filling the so-called "ecological barrel." In other words, it was a time of low ecological competition among animals which ultimately permitted unsuccessful anatomies to flourish for a few million years before the full panoply of evolutionary pressures (natural selection) began to eliminate the less successful designs.
Another thing learned from the Burgess Shale is the imprecision of "survival of the fittest." Certainly, adapting to environmental change is vital, but it's not the whole ballgame. The adapted animal also needs luck on its side, luck that it cannot possibly have any direct role in affecting. I refer to the importance of contingency. Gould calls it "decimation by lottery," and given its sway religious adherence solely to classic evolutionary principles such as gradualism, etc., becomes short sighted.
Finally, if you will accept my argument that contingency is not only resolvable and important, but also fascinating in a special sort of way, then the Burgess not only reverses our general ideas about the source of pattern – it also fills us with a new kind of amazement (also a frisson for the improbability of the event) at the fact that humans ever evolved at all. We came this close (put your thumb about a millimeter away from your index finger), thousands and thousands of times, to erasure by the veering of history down another sensible channel. Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life. (p. 289)
If you're like me, one who wonders why we were set down on a speck of interstellar dust in the midst of a universe so vast we daily fail to comprehend its age and scale, this book is for you. Gould is a fabulous writer. He writes with a minimum of jargon, and concepts of any complexity he is careful to explain. But he does this without being tedious; he does it, in fact, while sharing his own boundless sense of fascination. Gould was a brilliant man, a rare amalgam of top-flight scientist, science writer, and teacher. When he died 10 years ago he left a great hole in the landscape of writers who could engagingly write for the general reader about evolutionary biology and paleontology. There is simply no one else like him working today. I'm in the process of reading all of his books. There are about 20. Highly recommended for those with an interest in science, particularly the life sciences....more
Deepak Chopra’s new book, The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality in Our Times, is a very poor book for a number of reasons. I want toDeepak Chopra’s new book, The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality in Our Times, is a very poor book for a number of reasons. I want to enumerate those reasons, but first let me tell you about another book, a very fine one, Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. (Knopf, 2009, 406 pp.) A scholar of comparative religion, Armstrong writes that virtually all world religions have historically depended on a foundation of silence, or what she calls “unknowing.” This is the silence through which one gets intimations of the Divine presence, and it is based on the sacred teachings.
Armstrong says that there never was a presumption on the part of early theists that they could grasp God. God was beyond human comprehension. Since direct knowledge was not possible the only alternative was what she calls kenosis (Greek “self emptying”). This technique, which she describes, leads one toward the necessary quiet contemplation of God. So religion was not in its early days about "belief." No one was expected to believe in God. In fact, the idea of belief as we know it today did not even exist then, two millenia or so ago. That happened when the scientific revolution came along. The scientific method taught that facts were either right or wrong. Either you could repeat the experiment, or you could not.
Gradually there was a shift from kenosis, from the gentle act of self-emptying for purposes of contemplation of God in silence, to one which began to seek "scientific proofs" for God's existence. For instance, it was at first thought that the incredible detail revealed by microscopes was a sign of the Divine. William Paley, an English clergyman, wrote about this in his Natural Theology.
Then two things happened that threw this new approach to “knowing” God on its ear. First were advances in geology. Geology showed that the earth was not created in six days, as stated in Genesis; rather it pointed to time spans (hundreds of millions of years) almost beyond human comprehension. Then came evolution. Darwin showed us that homo sapiens and his fellows were not created all at one time and set down on the planet in their current form. Evolution showed us that there was no Intelligent Design, for its process (natural selection) was not in any way directed. That is to say, it was a geologically slow and muddled process marked by eons of struggle, most of it futile, not to mention extinction.
So here we are in the present day. The fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible (or the Koran or the Talmud). Something never required of early worshippers. Somehow it has come to be thought that religion must be match science truth for truth. And religion of course, with its basis in sacred narrative, can never do that.
This brings me to Deepak Chopra’s new book, The Future of God. The book is such a morass, such a muddle of half thoughts and inchoate statements that at first I hardly knew how to begin my review. (I suspect it may have been dictated. Not that there’s anything wrong with diction if you edit and revise, but Mr. Chopra does not seem to have even given this mess a second reading. I surmise it was just dictated, hurriedly, transcribed, and sent to the publisher. After all, why actually work on a book when you know it will sell a 100,000 copies? And Chopra publishes books like most people use toilet paper.)
Chopra attacks those he calls the militant atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and others. Chopra enters into an insanely outdated mission to lend creedence to Paley’s argument for Intelligent Design. He falls into the very trap that Armstrong laid out in The Case for God. He tries to match proofs with the science of Dawkins et al with regard to God’s existence. It can't be done. I was stunned reading that!
Moreover, Chopra doesn’t understand evolution. If he did understand it he would not need to rail against its seeming Godlessness. For the mechanism of natural selection that Darwin passed down to us does not, to my mind, exclude the idea of a Creator. But because Chopra doesn’t understand evolution, which, admittedly, can be highly counter-intuitive at times, he rejects it wholesale. Just astonishing!
Unlike Armstrong, Chopra does not argue for the existence of God in our daily lives from its basis in the extensive mythical narratives that have come down to us. He’s argues for a God in the abstract, wholly disconnected from its vast narrative core. There’s no substantive discussion of the great books of world religion here. Chopra is a very traditional fellow, extolling divine inspiration and healings, which he takes at face value.
Let me say at this point that I am an agnostic (evolutionist Thomas Huxley's term). I believe in something out there, but I don’t know what it is. I admire normal religious people for their ability to reflect inwardly and live confident and productive lives. (For a moving portrait of such persons see Marilynn Robinson's fine novel Gilead.) So I think the average religious person has an advantage on me in that they have the confidence of faith, while I do not.
At any rate, I cannot recommended this book. If you want a substantive consideration of God in historical context with the great books of revelatory monotheistic faith, I highly recommend Armstong’s The Case for God....more