Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Decade of Favorites

I have selected one book from my reading in each of the years of the decade ending this year. The list includes contemporary novels, plays, non-fiction, and classics. I had to make some difficult choices because I often felt more than one book that I read in a given year qualified. I also limited the list to one book for any given author*. If I had not done this both Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Mann would have been represented twice. All of these books are among those I would reread (and in some cases have already done so), but I am looking forward to the new decade with anticipation of meeting new great books by authors both familiar and not.

2010 Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

2011 The Double Helix by James D. Watson

2012 Walden by Henry David Thoreau

2013 The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy of plays by Tom Stoppard

2014 The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

2015 Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

2016 The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch

2017 Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

2018 The Divine Comedy by Dante

2019 The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

* Some of the books that almost made the list included Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Mc Carthy's Border Trilogy and The Road, Elias Canetti's Auto Da Fe, Mann's Doctor Faustus, and Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman.


Quotable Book Quotes -    
              - From some of my favorite authors

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
― Mark Twain

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”
― Oscar Wilde

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”
― Ernest Hemingway

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles W. Eliot

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”
― William Styron

“What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do.”
― Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ten Best of the Year

Top Ten Books I Read in 2019

The following are the ten best among the literature that I read since January 1, 2019. They are in no particular order but all of them I enjoyed and would recommend to all.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Life Class by Pat Barker

The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki 

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Character Tales

Winesburg, Ohio 

by Sherwood Anderson

“Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night,' he had said. 'You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses.” ― Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio 

I first read this book when I was in high school and have read and reread it since then. From the beginning it struck me as a serious work of literature but only upon rereading it and reading more extensively authors who were influenced by Anderson have I become to appreciate  his true greatness. Published in 1919 and sub-titled “A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-town Life,” Winesburg, Ohio exposed the desperation and loneliness of so many of the residents of a small, mid-American town. 

Rather than a single, well-defined plot, Winesburg, Ohio has a loosely interconnected set of stories with overlapping time frame and characters. Only when the town itself is considered the "main character" can one speak of an overall plot. Using this approach, the traditional small town life of nineteenth-century America comes to an end; its hard but stable community is broken into the dynamic but impersonal atoms of twentieth-century American society.

It was among the first books to take on what would become a central theme in American literature. In these tales you see the strange, secret lives of the inhabitants of a small town. In "Hands," Wing Biddlebaum tries to hide the tale of his banishment from a Pennsylvania town, a tale represented by his hands. In "Adventure," lonely Alice Hindman impulsively walks naked into the night rain. Threaded through the stories is the viewpoint of George Willard, the young newspaper reporter who, like his creator, stands witness to the dark and despairing dealings of a community of isolated people. Here is an example of the beautiful prose of such isolation:

“In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. "I have come to this lonely place and here is this other," was the substance of the thing felt.” 

Each of the tales shines a clear light on the character of an inhabitant and you come to know Winesburg almost as well as your own home town. Growing up in a small Midwestern town I never forgot the feeling this book gave me and the appreciation for the genius of Sherwood Anderson.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Viking Critical Library.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Reverie in a Maine Forest

The Country of the Pointed Firs 

The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories

“I now remembered that Mrs. Todd had told me one day that Captain Littlepage had overset his mind with too much reading.”   ― Sarah Orne Jewett

Jewett’s novel The Country of the Pointed Firs is the culmination of the regional characters, themes, and techniques that Jewett explored for so many years. It is a composite novel organized around alternating currents of separation and reunion, Jewett never wrote a conventionally-plotted novel, and in this tale a visiting writer-narrator from the city is slowly changed from an outsider into an initiated insider in the life of the largely female community of Dunnet Landing, a tiny seacoast village in Maine. The first chapter, titled “Return”, represents a reunion of sorts in that the narrator is returning to a place with which she previously fell in love. After that very short opening she is quickly drawn into the world of her landlady, Mrs. Almira Todd, the local herbalist who seems to possess a special spiritual outlook.

Soon the narrator feels the need to separate so that she can complete the writing project she brought with her. After listening to a strange tale about a limbo-like “waiting place” between this world and the next in the fog-bound arctic regions, the narrator reunites with Mrs. Todd, and they both discover that their relationship has improved in mutual consideration and empathy as a result of the separation. They have achieved a balance between the basic human needs for both connection and separation. This alternating pattern of separation and reunion continues in a number of different ways throughout the novel, ending with the narrator’s departure from Dunnet Landing.

Dunnet Landing and the surrounding country is populated with charming characters whose stories fill the spaces between the description of the lovely Maine north country. One of those characters, Captain Littlepage, had time for both sailing and reading. The latter activity was evidently also a pastime of the narrator who dotted the narrative with references to Shakespeare, Milton, and others. 

The scenery is captured in moments like this:
"We were standing where there was a fine view of the harbor and its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark. As we looked far seaward among the outer islands, the trees seemed to march seaward still, going steadily over the heights and down to the water's edge."(p. 33)

The chill in the air on winter nights was tempered by the heat from a Franklin Stove (no doubt very much like the one in my sister's home in the high country of northeastern Nevada). One of the best moments in the story was the Bowden family reunion that brought together many of the people from the area in a way that you can only experience in small out of the way communities like Dunnet Landing.

The Country of the Pointed Firs was greeted with strongly positive reviews. Indeed, a few years later, Jewett's friend Willa Cather would rate it as one of the three great classics of American literature (the other two being The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). I'm not sure I agree completely with Cather, but this is a fine short novel depicting late nineteenth century Americana.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Scenes from a Life

Time and Place 

Time and Place

“The Summer Garden, perhaps the most beautiful garden in Petersburg, had the particular advantage of being almost next to the Embassy. Originally laid out by Leblond, in the manner of Versailles, its most remarkable feature was a series of fountains, with statuary depicting scenes from Aesop's Fables.”  ― Alan Sheridan, Time and Place

This is a novel qua biography and an artistic charmer in the gayest sense of the word. The protagonist, young Mark Sheridan, is precocious both intellectually and sexually with an ability to charm most of the men he meets in this book that seemed longer than it in fact was.

The story is narrated in the first person as though told by young Mark himself; with a diary-like form relating his experiences both in the acting world and earlier, as the son of a diplomat based in China and Russia in the late nineteenth century. Much of the book is set in Peking, St Petersburg, Paris, and London with travelogue-style descriptions of the cities, as well as lengthy but slightly less orthodox descriptions of Mark’s many encounters with men. These encounters were usually brief and when he did develop a relationship they seemed somewhat flat and not as well-developed as the settings in which they occurred. His essays on the usefulness of public conveniences as pick-up joints at a time when homosexuality was still expressly forbidden across most of Europe are quite frank!

The sense of place, then, was beautifully suggested. I felt I knew the avenues of Paris, the gardens, canals, and underground toilets of St Petersburg, and the compounds and back streets of Peking.  It was if I was there with Mark as he explored, rutted, and trod the boards.

One difficulty I had with the book was with Sheridan’s handling of the time-scales involved. It opens in the early twentieth century with Mark as a fully fledged actor but soon flashes back to China and Russia of the 1890s when he was still a child, and from then on it progresses or regresses from the 1920s to the 1900s to the 1890s in a seemingly endless series of flashbacks. Each section was complete in itself and each one nicely presented the time in which it was set, but I soon felt that the continuity of narrative was confused at best.

Overall, however, I found the book rather enjoyable; written well enough to encourage the journey through the flashbacks. The beautiful locations also helped, but I would hesitate to recommend this book to an impatient reader.

The Sacred Trust

Paradigms Lost: 
Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline 

Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline

"Language is a sacred trust: we should nurture it, polish it, encourage it to grow new branches; instead, we kick it around, blunt it, and smash it at the peril of our very souls." ("The Sacred Trust", p. 69)

This is a collection of essays on language by one of the greatest critics of the twentieth century. Few writers can compare with the knowledge of language and the way with words demonstrated in John Simon's trenchant essays. This compendium is a delight for all readers who enjoy virtuosity in the use of language to defend the best writers who pursue the best words.

These essays span such topics as writers, linguists, the performing arts, the media, and more. His comments are biting and to the point; here is an example:
"In the beginning was the word, But by the time the second word was added to it, there was trouble. For with it came syntax, the thing that tripped up so many people. And they're tripping up more than ever today."("Authors Without Fear or Shame", p. 111)
It is an eclectic collection of elegant prose that will leave you wanting to read more criticism from the pen of John Simon.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

A Little Person in The Troubles



“People always said you'd better be careful. Though how, when things are out of your hands, when things were never really in your hands, when things are stacked against you, does a person - the little person down here on the earth - be that?”  ― Anna Burns, Milkman

Milkman is a unique historical novel told from the personal prospective of an unnamed young female narrator. Walking while reading, a girl - Middle sister - is pursued by the Milkman. This original sometimes mesmerizing narrative made me successively fascinated and bored with the dizzying rapidity of thoughts that connected - somehow, sometimes and ultimately. 

 The history is the setting of the novel during the time of the "Troubles". This refers to the conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century. It was also known internationally as the Northern Ireland conflict and it is sometimes described as an "irregular war" or "low-level war". The conflict began in the late 1960s and is usually deemed to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Among other awards it won the Booker Prize in 2018.

What makes Milkman unique, among other things, is that the narrative portrays the "Troubles" without using such terms as ‘the Troubles’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Ireland’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, ‘RUC’ and ‘British army’ and ‘IRA’. On the other hand, the narrator’s personal, first-principles language, with its phrases coming at you so frequently with inverted commas and sudden changes of register, is also used to describe the inner world of a young woman ... 
“I used to puzzle over the extent of this anger, of all of ma’s blaming and haranguing and complaining. It was only much later that I came to realize that this was a case of her not forgiving him for many things – maybe for all things – and not just for not cheering up.”

It’s a brilliant rhetorical balancing act, and the narrator can sometimes be very funny. The tonal changes are subtle and the plot has some absurd moments, yet, while it is easy to overlook on a first reading, at least until the final stretch, there is a density and tightness of plotting behind the narrator’s apparently rambling performance. What’s more, the comic unfolding of the plot runs counter to the narrator’s tight sense of what can and can’t be said and done in her neighborhood, and, after a chilling final encounter with the milkman, the ending is a surprise and perhaps a relief.

The author uses imaginative language and her limited use of proper names creates a sort of distancing effect. The style of the novel is demanding, but as a reader your perseverance is rewarded in the end. I would compare the difficulty I encountered with its style to a similar difficulty that I experienced reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2004). While very different in many ways both of these difficult reads are worth the effort required.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Peripatetic Reader

Books on the Bus
an update 

I always have a book with me including when I ride the bus. When I am out and about I prefer to leave the heavyweight tomes at home so my current reading that includes: The Symposium, a dialogue by Plato;  The Brothers Karamazov;  and the Essais of Montaigne, all of which are left on a table next to my comfortable reading chair.

On a recent morning I was reading the short novel The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett as I rode the bus headed downtown.  Similarly, some years ago,  when I rode downtown and back to meet some former coworkers for lunch I took along Gene Smith's slight but fascinating biography of Woodrow Wilson's last years, When The Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson.  Now what do these two disparate books have in common? They are both lightweight and easy to carry and it also takes a little less concentration to read them than that required for Dostoevsky or Plato.

While I enjoy reading as I travel I equally enjoy noticing what my fellow bus riders are reading. There are always a few readers on board any bus with more than a handful of passengers. Call me a biblio-voyeur if you will, but I cannot deny my interest. Usually the books are not worth the glance, for the buses are filled with people reading Twilight or its clones, the latest romance novel or some Ludlumesque thriller-chiller (all of which I personally find unreadable - but that's just one reader's perspective).

Not to long ago just after I had finished reading the novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer I was riding the bus headed downtown and the fellow who sat down next to me pulled out the same book - needless to say a brief genial conversation ensued.  This reminded me of previous occasions when I encountered people with various reading material including  Knowles' A Separate Peace, and Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. Now those are both books worthy of consideration, in fact I've read A Separate Peace more than once. They provide evidence that there is a bit of gold among the dross of the many books being read on the bus. 

It reminds me of yet another time several years ago that I struck up a conversation with someone who was reading No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had recently read it myself and could not help sharing the joy of the experience by discussing the book with a fellow reader - no stranger, for we were connected by our shared reading. While that does not happen often since I usually have my nose buried in a book, there is nothing like taking books with you and reading them on buses -  enjoying them while traveling to and fro.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Journey of Beauty and Love

The Bridge of Little Jeremy 

"In the epoch of Lutetia, there used to be a wooden bridge there, the only bridge that connected the Roman quarters on the Left Bank to their administrative offices on the Ile de la Cite. That bridge has been replaced several times since, but, among the dozen bridges that ornate the two isles today, the Petit Pont has always been my favorite, and I've never attempted to paint it yet." (p 52)

This is the story of a boy and his dog. But it is much more than a simple tale like that, for as the narrative grows the reader finds himself on a journey of discovery with Little Jeremy. It turns out to be a variation on the mythical journey of a hero and as it develops the sometimes dreamlike quality of the story draws the reader forward with the intensity of a mystery, the bounteous beauty of Paris, the suspense of unexpected events, and a joyousness that can only be found in the love of a boy for his mother.

The setting is Paris which underlies the beauty of the story - a beauty that is enhanced by young Jeremy, who even at his age has the budding eye of an artist:
"I see the sinuous streets and the steep staircases of Montmartre that I haven't seen for a long while, and then I see how the works of Nature and Man have come together to sculpt the beauty of our city."(p 136)

Not only is the beauty of the setting framed by the eyes of young Jeremy but the narrator limns the setting with descriptions like that of the "Jardin-des-Plantes" where Leon, Jeremy's trusted and loving dog, is seen chasing butterflies. As the story develops the intricacies of the city and its spaces add to the mysteriousness of Jeremy's journey.

Little Jeremy narrates the story, and we learn he has a  medical condition - a weakness of his heart due to a faulty valve. As a result he does not attend school and often spends his days scouring the city with Leon. His encounters with the city and the world beyond his small apartment during the arc of the story are both interesting and exciting - he becomes a hero for a time. His mother, unfortunately faces a serious financial debt due to taxes. Ultimately, Little Jeremy's desire to help his mother leads him to a discovery that with the application of his artistic skills and help from some friends may provide the funds that are essential for their survival as a family.

It is the innocence and loving nature of Little Jeremy contrasted with the realities and difficulties of living that makes this a mesmerizing story. There is great suspense leading to a denouement that demonstrates the magic of the search for an ideal. That combined with the importance of love for those that are close to you and a need to nurture the genius within you makes this a wonderful novel.

Friday, October 25, 2019

An Attitude of Humility

The Road to Serfdom 

The Road to Serfdom

“The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful tools human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from doing better.” ― Friedrich August von Hayek

This is one of the foundation books for my personal philosophy. Along with his other works, the thought of Friedrich von Hayek is basic to my own individualist world view. In this book Hayek contends that liberty is fragile, easily harmed but seldom extinguished in one fell swoop. Instead, over the years “the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” He asserts that liberty has developed from an a posteriori recognition of humans’ inherent limitations – particularly the restrictions of their knowledge and reasoning. Most importantly, no planner or group of planners, however intelligent and well resourced, can possibly obtain and process the countless bits of localized and tacit information required such that a government plan meets its objectives. Only price signals emitted in an unhampered market enable harmony and efficiency to arise spontaneously from many millions of individuals’ plans. Hence government intervention in the plans of individuals, even if undertaken by men of good will, inevitably leads to loss of liberty, economic stagnation (at best) and war and impoverishment (at worst).

While much of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom focused on correcting erroneous ideas and sloppy thinking that misled (and still mislead) many to support socialistic expansions of government power, that is not all it did. It also reiterated the case for individualism and its economic manifestation—free markets. Since convincing careful thinkers requires such an affirmative case as well as defensive debunking, the book’s diamond 75th anniversary is a propitious time to remember what only individualism provides, so that we will not continue to follow a path of “replacing what works with what sounds good,” as Thomas Sowell described it.

The essential features of…individualism…are the respect for the individual man qua man…the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere…and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.
The attitude of the liberal toward society is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and, in order to create the conditions most favorable to its growth, must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.

The holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully. The successful use of competition as the principle of social organization precludes certain types of coercive interference with economic  life.  Planning and competition can be combined only by planning for competition but not…planning which is to be substituted for competition.
It is the very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such coordination can be adequately brought about.

Nobody can consciously balance all the considerations bearing on the decisions of so many individuals…coordination can clearly be effective only by… arrangements which convey to each agent the information he must possess in order effectively to adjust his decisions to those of others…This is precisely what the price system does under competition and what no other system even promises to accomplish. The economist's plea is for a method which effects such co-ordination without the need for an omniscient dictator. Recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends…that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions…forms the essence of the individualist position.

What are called “social ends” are…merely identical ends of many individuals…to the achievement of which individuals are willing to contribute…Common action is thus limited to the fields where people agree on common ends. The clash between planning and democracy arises simply from the fact that the latter is an obstacle to the suppression of freedom which the direction of economic activity requires. The more the state “plans,” the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life…it is the control of the means for all our ends. To believe that the power which is thus conferred on the state is merely transferred to it from others is erroneous. It is a power which is newly created and which in a competitive society nobody possesses. So long as property is divided among many owners, none of them acting independently has exclusive power to determine the income and position of particular people.

Contrast…two types of security: the limited one, which can be achieved for all, and which is therefore no privilege but a legitimate object of desire; and absolute security, which…if it is provided for some, it becomes a privilege at the expense of others. Individualism is thus an attitude of humility…the exact opposite of that intellectual hubris which is at the root of the demand for comprehensive direction of the social process.

Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom defended the individual—the only ultimate locus of choice, responsibility and morality—as the appropriate focus of efforts toward human improvement, at a time when failing to keep that focus threatened the entire world. That is a lesson we need to remember now as well, when many do not remember the horrors that can lead to, and so support constantly expanding government powers over its citizens.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Drifting Across America

American Woman 

American Woman

"And always the radio on, somehow underscoring her loneliness more than relieving it. She had plenty of distance from Dolly but still, late at night, she would turn down the radio low. In the vast nighttime hush she could play it quite softly and hear. The contrast of her life with the world outside sometimes felt too great on these nights. The radio was like a tiny porthole in her drifting balloon."(p 89) - American Woman, Susan Choi.

Susan Choi's novel is based on the real events surrounding the kidnapping of Patty Hearst in the 1970's.  She imbues her narrative with psychological depth and texture, while cleaving close to the true course of events. Instead of focusing on Patty (here named Pauline, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher), Choi turns her attention on Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese-American woman, who, fleeing the Feds after she and her boyfriend orchestrate the bombing of draft offices to protest the Vietnam War, agrees to help Pauline and her kidnappers. This protagonist is based on a real-life person, Wendy Yoshimura, who spent what's now called "the lost year" (1974, when Patty and her captors disappeared) with Patty and two of her kidnappers. In Choi's book, the four spend the time in a rented farmhouse in New York State, with Jenny running errands while Pauline and her "comrades" undergo physical training for their fight against "the pigs" and halfheartedly write a book (purportedly to eventually raise money to pay for their lifestyle).

While the author deftly handles Pauline's transformation, the bank robbery, Pauline and Jenny's cross-country trip, this was only part of the story.  More important for this reader was the more successful aspect of the novel -- the author's ability to create the atmosphere of suspense for the radicals who have segregated themselves from everyday life as most of us know it. This helps one understand the boredom and slowness of the action as the group is "lying low" out of reluctance to risk being recognized. The slowness ends in dramatic fashion in the final section of the novel with the denouement of the story. Even though you may know the basic history of the underlying events the author is able to maintain your interest.

Another important aspect is Choi's skill at getting inside the heads of her protagonists adding to the particular, unsettling appeal of the novel. What makes Jenny a radical? And what then leads her to wonder whether "perhaps they had been wrong to fight Power on its terms, instead of rejecting its terms utterly"? She presents protagonists that are often conflicted and, in doing so, Choi takes an uncompromising look at issues of race, class, war and peace. That having been said, I found the style of the author limited the effectiveness of her storytelling. This novel reminded me of Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey , a novel that succeeded both in creating an unsettling narrative (loosely based on real-life communist sympathizers in the 1940's) and demonstrating a felicitous prose style. The comparison may seem unfair but having experienced Trilling's prose I could only be disappointed by that of Susan Choi. Nevertheless this novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

American Woman by Susan Choi. Harper Perennial, 2004 (2003).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Lessons of History

Destined for War: 
Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? 

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

“Like other practicing historians, I am often asked what the “lessons of history” are. I answer that the only lesson I have learnt from studying the past is that there are no permanent winners and losers. —Ramachandra Guha” ― Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap?, discusses China's rise into the US political mainstream. After explaining the Thucydides Trap – the friction created when a rising power challenges an established power, the author presents twelve historical examples that resulted in war, and four in which war was avoided. Allison proceeds to focus on the examples he considers to be the most instructive, namely the Peloponnesian War, World War I, and the Cold War.

Allison also relays insights from the late Lee Kuan Yew in making his case that Beijing's goal is the restoration of China as a regional hegemon. He argues against the idea that China will become a 'responsible stakeholder' in the international system in which the US remains the arbiter. China seeks the expulsion of the US from Asia, and is rapidly accumulating capabilities to achieve this goal.

He translates an unfiltered Chinese view for his local audience, analogizing it to America's expansion in the Western Hemisphere under President Teddy Roosevelt. Going by Allison's ledger, the factors favouring war between the US and China are ominous: two powers with narratives of their own 'exceptionalism', China's sense of past humiliation and present restoration, incompatible cultures and political systems, and a series of entangling flash-points and alliances. On the positive side, Allison argues, is an interdependent trade relationship and stable nuclear deterrence. Allison also labels North Korea as a 'Cuban missile crisis in slow motion'.

Ironically, the weakness of Allison's book is not his warning that the US and China are at risk of falling into the Thucydides Trap – a case he makes conclusively – but rather his explanations for why war remains avoidable. First, Allison makes the common error that nuclear dynamics between the US and China work the same way as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence rests not just on capability (ensuring a retaliatory strike), but also credibility. During the Cold War, the fall of Western Europe to the Soviet Union posed such an existential threat to the US that a nuclear war could credibly be initiated to prevent it. In Asia, however, the US will not commence a full nuclear exchange with China and there is no way to convince Beijing otherwise. As such, current nuclear dynamics in Asia makes major war more likely, as mapped out in my review of the RAND study of a US-China war, a study also cited by Allison.

Finally, while carefully articulating China’s perception of the rivalry, it is surprising just how US-centric Allison’s ideas are for how conflict might be avoided. Allison suggests curtailing America’s commitment to Taiwan in exchange for concessions in the South and East China seas, or abandoning Prompt Global Strike in exchange for Beijing limiting its conventional expansion. However it seems unlikely China will agree to any of this. Why should it? Time is on Beijing's side. These kinds of deals only worked during the Cold War because each side recognized the other’s core interests while the balance of power between the US and the Soviet Union remained relatively stable. In the case of China and the US, the power shift is rapid and profound, and while Allison clearly understands this he fails to see the implications of his own conclusions. Rather than horse-trading over Taiwan and the South China Sea, Beijing might suggest the US leave Asia entirely in exchange for permanent recognition of Washington’s annexation of Hawaii!

Despite these shortcomings, this reader found Allison’s book good reading for the overview that it provides. In Destined for War, Allison calls Obama’s Asia pivot 'using an extra strength aspirin to treat cancer'. This author suggests stronger methods.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Force of Destiny



“The only hope I have left for you hangs on a great doubt - the doubt whether we are, or are not, the masters of our own destinies. It may be that mortal free-will can conquer mortal fate; and that going, as we all do, inevitably to death, we go inevitably to nothing that is before death.”  ― Wilkie Collins, Armadale

Armadale, Wilkie Collins’s longest novel and like another of his popular novels, The Moonstone, the narrative comprises a series of testimonies and accounts (such as from characters’ diaries and letters) which gradually shed light on the mystery. One interesting note: the heading of Chapter VII is "The Plot Thickens". I do not know if that was the first use of that phrase (I doubt it) but it is striking that Collins would use it for a chapter heading.

In 1832, Allan Armadale confesses on his deathbed to murder: his clerk, Fergus Ingleby, stole his name and married Jane Blanchard, the woman Allan loved. Pursuing the couple on board a ship, Allan locked Fergus in a cabin and left him to drown when the ship was wrecked. Allan later travelled to the West Indies where he married a creole woman and had a son.
After this opening the story moves to 1851, and the murderer’s son has adopted the name Ozias Midwinter, while the drowned Fergus Ingleby’s has been brought up under the name Allan Armadale – and with it, has inherited Fergus’ property, the estate of Thorpe Ambrose. Ozias learns the truth about his father’s crime – that he murdered his friend’s father – while on a sailing trip with Fergus and Jane’s son, Allan Armadale. He destroys the letter containing Allan Armadale Senior’s confession, and vows to keep the secret from his friend.

Lydia Gwilt, the former maid to Jane Blanchard (Allan’s father), sets her sights on marrying Allan for his money. Both Ozias Midwinter and Allan Armadale end up falling for Lydia, but her plan to marry Armadale is scuppered when her cynical motives are uncovered. However the resourceful Lydia, having learned the secret that Midwinter’s real name is also Allan Armadale, plans to marry him under his real name, get the other Allan Armadale out of the way, and then use the marriage certificate as legal proof of her entitlement to the Armadale estate. This complex plot continues as Lydia marries Midwinter, concealing her checkered past from him but the denouement will have to await your reading pleasure for this reader must vow not to spoil that delight.

Armadale is unusual among Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels because it demonstrates a detailed interest in human psychology, with dreams cropping up at numerous points in the novel, and Collins taking time to explore what John Sutherland, in The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, calls ‘the psychology of crime’. Granted, the dreams are used as plot devices rather than as a sort of proto-stream-of-consciousness designed to shed light on Allan Armadale’s character; but Collins’s use of the dreams, and Midwinter’s analysis of their significance as premonitions, adds another psychological layer to this complex novel. The real triumph of Armadale is Collins’s portrayal of Lydia Gwilt, whose surname suggests ‘guilt’ (and ‘gilt’, evoking her gold-digging ambitions), but also, through a twist, ‘will’, foregrounding her own independent agency and, it must be said, her perseverance and cunning. This is a great read which I would recommend to lovers of Dickens or Thackeray.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Ripples of Memory

Absalom, Absalom! 

Absalom, Absalom!

“Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm”  ― William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Memory. That is remembering the past, your family, the culture of family and place. That is in and of the essence of this memorable novel. We find it in the wisteria:

"Do you mark how the wistaria, sun-impacted on this wall here, distills and penetrates this room as though (light-unimpeded) by secret and attritive progress from mote to mote of obscurity's myriad components? That is the substance of remembering---sense, sight, and smell" (p 115)

This is a story of a man, Thomas Sutpen, and other men and women whose lives formed the history of a place and a time--a sometimes dynasty, as told by several narrators including Miss Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson (whom you may remember from The Sound and the Fury).
The memory of the events surrounding the ferociousness of Thomas Sutpen is told through fabulous stories, conjecture, discussions, and arguments. It encompasses the history of generations, the strength of women to survive, and the impact of slavery on their way of being.

Told with the poetic beauty of Faulkner's magnificent prose this is a novel to be read and reread; savored as you meditate on the meaning of these people and events and how they resemble those you may remember from Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Above all it is about Faulkner's idea of the South and that of his characters, especially Quentin, the young Harvard student who proclaims:

"'I don't hate it,' he said. I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!" (p 303)