Feb 09 2007

The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells

Technically this book is science fiction, but in reality it is a brilliant social allegory, much in the same vein as *Gulliver’s Travels*. The Food of the Gods is a newly discovered chemical compound that makes animals and humans grow to huge proportions. But the subject of this book is not really bigness and big things. The theme is actually littleness, the universal littleness that the author sees in the world around him and that can only be brought to light by a stark contrast with bigness. The Food of the Gods is not just a stimulant to growth, but also a liberator from small ways of thinking. I get the sense from reading this work that Wells was truly brilliant, and also, perhaps, slightly mad. This is his most profound work.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2007/02/09/the-food-of-the-gods-by-h-g-wells/

Feb 07 2007

Premature Evaluation: Albion’s Seed

Why is America the way that it is?

Wrong question, the author of Albion’s Seed would say. America isn’t any one way, and hasn’t been since the very beginning of European, particularly English, colonization. David Hackett Fischer puts the core of his argument straight into his subtitle: Four British Folkways in America. He identifies four distinct migrations from Britain, and to a much lesser extent Ireland, that shaped American culture and regions down to the present day. These migrations were fairly coherent in origin, destination and religion. Understanding these origins will help understand cleavages in the contemporary United States, and it will help understand America as a whole.

The four migrations that he identifies are Puritans, distressed cavaliers and indentured servants, Quakers, and borderers. The Puritans came from East Anglia and settled New England. The cavaliers and their servants came from the south of England and settled tidewater Virginia. The Quakers came from the north Midlands and settled the Delaware Valley. The borderers came from the border between England and Scotland, sometimes by way of Ireland, and settled the thirteen colonies’ backcountry. Each had a distinct religious tradition: Puritans and Quakers most obviously; cavaliers had Anglicanism; and I haven’t read about border religion yet, this is a premature evaluation after all.

It’s a fascinating argument and a fascinating book. It’s filled with snippets and stories, and for an 800-page tome it zips along nicely. That’s due in part to Fischer’s non-ponderous historical prose, but also in part to the book’s organization. Each group gets roughly 200 pages, and in that space he covers a set list of 15 topics, so that the four are analyzed in parallel. He looks at naming patterns, marriage patterns, views on aging, on death, on hierarchy, and so forth. He argues strongly for religion as the key motivation for many colonists, and for religion’s importance in shaping the folkways that he describes. It’s a thorough discussion.

Though not without its flaws. Most obviously, America’s largest city in colonial times is not mentioned: New York. While religion’s role may have been discounted in 1989, when the book was published, it is more prominent today. Influence on contemporary America is more often asserted than demonstrated. And the book was supposed to be the first volume of five or more that would form a social history of the United States. Subsequent volumes have not appeared, making references to them in the main text or footnotes irritating.

Two related questions follow from Fischer’s argument. First, if the religions and regions of the original migrations are so important for the fabric of America, are they equally so for the contemporary United Kingdom? Why or why not? The topic is obviously beyond the remit of Albion’s Seed, but thinking about it illuminates the claims about influence down to the present. Second, what about later migrations? I think he addresses this a little at the end, but it was probably a question for the subsequent volumes that never appeared.

I think the basic premise is useful, and the details are fascinating. (Last night I learned that Philadelphia cream cheese isn’t actually a cheese, but more like semi-dehydrated sour cream. Who knew?) Some of the patterns do hold, and it is a usable framework for thinking about competing currents in American culture and politics.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2007/02/07/premature-evaluation-albions-seed/

Feb 06 2007

Taking Stock of 2006: Books

Best books I read in 2006?

In fiction, it would have to be most of the second half of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. I read six in 2006 and the last two in early January 2007, and it’s a terrific body of work. Its acclaim and success need little boost from this blog, but I enjoyed and learned from the whole run. The only competition I’ve read in historical fiction is Dorothy Dunnett, with the Lymond and Niccolo series, plus her take on Macbeth.
Beyond the captain and his doctor, best from last year’s reading: Snow, by Orhan Pamuk, the best of his novels and a look at many sides of Islam, modernity and Europe; The Death of Achilles, by Boris Akunin, a witty and subversive detective series set in late Tsarist Russia, far fewer of which have been translated into English than into German, annoyingly enough; An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth, with its insight into the minds of musicians and a virtuoso book by an absurdly talented writer; and Accelerando, by Charles Stross, head-stretching science fiction for the early 21st century.

Over in non-fiction, I would start the list with: At Canaan’s Edge, by Taylor Branch, concludes his epic and riveting account of America in the era of Martin Luther King. Gripping writing, definitive research, passionate commitment, simply a great book. The other favorites from non-fiction also tend toward the long and the historical: The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, a mold-breaking history of Australia’s colonial period; The Prize, by Daniel Yergin, the history of the 20th century with oil as its central theme; A Writer at War, by Vasily Grossman, annotated stories from a Soviet journalist at the front lines of the Great Patriotic War; The Mission, by Dana Priest, on the militarization of American foreign policy; and The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart, a British ex-diplomat’s walk through central Afghanistan in the winter after the Taliban fell.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE.

Fiction

The Well of Lost Plots – Jasper Fforde
Snow – Orhan Pamuk
Die Dame mit dem Hündchen – Anton Chekhov
Something Rotten – Jasper Fforde
The Thirteen-Gun Salute – Patrick O’Brian
The Nutmeg of Consolation – Patrick O’Brian
Clarissa Oakes – Patrick O’Brian
Dorf Punks – Rocko Schamoni
An Equal Music – Vikram Seth
Brand New Friend – Mike Gayle
The Grim Grotto – Lemony Snicket
The Penultimate Peril – Lemony Snicket
A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
The Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov
The Death of Achilles – Boris Akunin
Looking for Jake – China Mieville
A Clash of Kings – George R.R. Martin
Let’s Put the Future Behind Us – Jack Womack
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
Ringworld – Larry Niven
Singularity Sky – Charles Stross
The Family Trade – Charles Stross
Iron Sunrise – Charles Stross
Pu-239 – Ken Kalfus
Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Galatea 2.2 – Richard Powers
His N Hers – Mike Gayle
The Canine Kalevala – Mauri Kunnas
Air Babylon – Imogen Edwards-Jones
The Wine-Dark Sea – Patrick O’Brian
The Commodore – Patrick O’Brian
Penguin Lost – Andrey Kurkov
Accelerando – Charles Stross
The End – Lemony Snicket
The Yellow Admiral – Patrick O’Brian

Non-Fiction
On the Brink – Jonathan Fenby
Grace and Power – Sally Bedell Smith
The Pythons: An Autobiography – M. Python
Miles from Nowhere – Dayton Duncan
Two Lives – Vikram Seth
The File – Timothy Garton Ash
The Hungarians – Paul Lendvai
The Fatal Shore – Robert Hughes
A Pretext for War – James Bamford
The Mission – Dana Priest
The Prize – Daniel Yergin
A Writer at War – Vasily Grossman
Reindeer People – Piers Vitebsky
At Canaan’s Edge – Taylor Branch
Foreign Babes in Beijing – Rachel Dewoskin
Northern Shores – Alan Palmer
The Places in Between – Rory Stewart
1776 – David McCullough
Khrushchev – William Taubman
Legends of Modernity – Czeslaw Milosz

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2007/02/06/taking-stock-of-2006-books/

Nov 28 2006

Stephen Maturin, Drug Fiend

From The Commodore, pp. 187-88

Yet [Maturin] had some faults [as a physician], and one was a habit of dosing himself, generally from a spirit of inquiry, as in his period of inhaling large quantities of the nitrous oxide and of the vapour of hemp, to say nothing of tobacco, bhang in all its charming varieties in India, betel in Java and the neighbouring islands, qat in the Red Sea, and hallucinating cacti in South America, but sometimes for relief from distress, as when he became addicted to opium in one form or another; and now he was busily poisoning himself with coca-leaves, whose virtue he had learnt in Peru.

An open thread for considering Patrick O’Brian.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/11/28/stephen-maturin-drug-fiend/

Oct 23 2006

Under the Frog

Novermber 1955:

Tired of trying to crack the problem of the informer, Gyuri settled down to think about being a streetsweeper while he gazed out of the window at the countryside that went past quite lazily despite the train’s billing as an express. The streetsweeper was a sort of cerebral chewing gum that Gyuri popped in on long journeys. A streersweeper. Where? A streetsweeper in London. Or New York. Or Cleveland; he wasn’t that fussy. Some modest streetsweeping anywhere. Anywhere in the West. Anywhere outside. Any job. No matter how menial, a windowcleaner, a dustman, a labourer: you could just do it, just carry out your job and you wouldn’t need an examination in Marxism-Leninism, you wouldn’t have to look at pictures of Rakosi or whoever had superbriganded their way to the top lately. You wouldn’t have to hear about gambolling production figures, going up by leaps and bounds, higher even than the Plan had predicted because the power of Socialist production had been underestimated. Being a streetsweeper would be quite agreeable, Gyuri reflected. You’d be out in the open, doing healthy work, seeing things. It was the very humility of this fantasy, its frugality that gave the greatest pleasure, since Gyuri hoped this could facilitate its coming to pass. It wasn’t as if he were pestering Providence for a millionaireship or to be handed the presidency of the United States. How could anyone refuse a request to be a streetsweeper? Just pull me out. Just pull me out. Apart from the prevailing political inclemency and the ubiquitous shittiness of life, the simple absurdity of never having voyaged more than two hundred kilometres from the spot where he had bailed out of the womb rankled.

The train went into a slower kind of slow, signalling that they were arriving in Szeged. This was, he knew from his research, 171 kilometres from Budapest.


Early November 1956:

Gyuri threw away his empty gun. If he needed another gun, he could pick one up off any street-corner, and carrying one didn’t do you any favours. ‘The Red Army won’t forget about its outing in Budapest,’ said Kurucz. ‘It’s been … well, people will write about us.’

Clinging to walls al the way home, Gyuri crashed into the British military attache, recessed in a doorway, observing the proceedings. The way Gyuri greeted him in English made the attache realise they were acquainted, though he obviously couldn’t place Gyuri. ‘Awesome, these new tanks,’ he said gesturing at a herd on the other side of Hosok Square, ‘those new guns, too, formidable rate of fire.’ Gyuri nodded because he was unable to add anything to the conversation. He merely smiled politely in the way one does when one’s country has been invaded by interesting new tanks. The attache was carrying an umbrella, Gyuri observed, as all Englishmen should. …

It was colder than usual for November, and it seemed much blacker at six than it should have been, as if the Russians had imported extra darkness with themselves and dawn had given up. There weren’t many trains running, but the Keleti Station had a train, greatly over-subscribed, getting ready to leave. It wasn’t a train taking people anywhere in Hungary, although nominally it had a Hungarian destination. Although no one said so, everyone knew it was the slow train to Vienna.

The centre of the city had quietened but as the train chugged out of Budapest, passing Csepel Island, explosions could be heard. Csepel, always referred to officially as ‘red’, since it was inhabited exclusively by industrial workers, was the last part of Budapest to hold out. They had a munitions factory. They had anti-aircraft batteries so powerful they could be used to turn most tanks into Swiss cheese. Their own leaders had told them to give up. They had been instructed to go to hell. Huge columns of smoke had hung immobile over the island all day as if pinned there. People who lived in Csepel had a reputation for tenacity, toughness and an implausible level of violence second only to Angyalfold.

Between these stations, it’s a terrific and extraordinarily funny book. Also very good is The Bridge at Andau, by the young James Michener.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/10/23/under-the-frog/

Oct 13 2006

A Pocketful of Pamuk

The definitive(ish) review I’ve been meaning to write for months will obviously have to wait now that Orhan Pamuk has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here are the AFOE talking points on Pamuk:

Snow is the one book to read if you only have time to read one. Ka, the protagonist, is a Turkish poet who has been living in exile in Frankfurt. (His name is the inverse of the abbreviation of Turkey’s ruling party, AK, which is also the Turkish word for white. The Turkish title of the book, Kar, is also just a letter short of the name of the city where the novel takes place, Kars.) He returns to a provincial city to investigate why a number of local girls have committed suicide after being excluded from school for wearing headscarves. As he begins to make sense of the complexities involved, a blizzard strikes and cuts the city off from the rest of the world for several days. In this pocket world, a local coup takes place, Islamist radicals may or may not be agitating for rule, and reality itself gets much more uncertain in the drifts and blankets of snow. Pamuk juggles many different layers of meaning, many different possibilities of what is real, how peoples’ perceptions and convictions slip and slide, and some specifically Turkish elements of theater, politics and mutability. It is a great book, even if the ending only delivers on about 90 percent of the promise of the middle.

Istanbul: Memories and the City is the other book that’s being widely cited. It, too, is terrific, not least because the publishers have taken advantage of modern techonology and included many pictures from Pamuk’s personal collection in the narrative itself. The book is a memoir of growing up in one of the world’s greatest cities, and it gives you a sense not only of the author’s particularities–a sprawling, occasionally brawling family that’s well-to-do but fading; his interest in painting that becomes a career in writing; a characteristic melancholy; and more, of course–but also of the city’s personalities and how they change over time. People, neighborhoods, periods, moods–Pamuk captures them all.

The Black Book is out in a new translation, which I am led to understand is a big improvement. I was able to put the old one down for several years without much worry before finishing the book, so I think think it likely. In any event, the novel concerns one character’s search for his brother-in-law, a famous Istanbul newspaper columnist, who seems to have disappeared. This story is interspersed with columns, ostensibly written by the brother-in-law, about various peculiar events in Istanbul. As the book progresses, it appears possible that the brother-in-law is a fictional creation of the narrator, who may be a famous newspaper columnist himself; or he may merely have taken on the mantel left by his brother-in-law who actually has disappeared. Things merge into one another in this crossroads city.

I haven’t read My Name is Red or The White Castle, and only learned from the Nobel site that two more novels have been translated into English.

Pamuk insists that he isn’t a political novelist, and in my view he’s absolutely right to. Politics is too narrow to contain what he’s up to, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that unnerves authorities used to defining the limits of acceptable. The Black Book was apparently a break with dominant realist writing in Turkey, an early sign that Pamuk was headed for places that a conformist establishment would be uncomfortable in following. And while in this case it’s the secular Kemalist establishment that’s discomfited, an Islamist establishment would be much more unsettled. In both cases, that’s a good thing. Pamuk writes humane books, tells stories too full of ambiguity and uncertainty to support any dogma, too honest about his home city’s past to help partisan mythologizing, too committed to openness to prescribe one true path, and too aware of costs to be fully comforting to modernizers. But for readers, a feast, a delight, a glimpse into many worlds in and around the Bosporus, and beyond.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/10/13/a-pocketful-of-pamuk/

Sep 26 2006

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I hadn’t read Ringworld in at least a decade, and probably closer to two, when I picked it up again a couple of weeks back.

Originally published in 1970, the book has held up terrifically. Not for Niven, one of those far-future societies that’s a replication of the author’s own era. The use of “men” and “man,” where, today, “humans” and “humanity” would be more likely stuck out as slightly anachronistic. And the invented swear words were odd, too, though they may also be a bit of a joke on Niven’s part. The things that humans swear by and about and with are pretty consistent across time and culture; inventing something in this department may have been the author thumbing his nose at residual prudery in the publishing of his era.

I was also impressed by a couple of science references, particularly neutrinos, but a little Wiki research shows they were first detected in the mid-1950s, so maybe that’s not so unusual. Still, for all that Niven has to engage in hand-waving to get faster-than-light travel, the rest of the science seems respectfully handled.

One structural question, though. Clearly the initial impetus for the book was the idea of the Ringworld itself. It’s not a character-driven novel; at most, it’s driven by the intersection of the characters with the setting. Given the setting, though, why tell the particular story that Niven does? Is it just that the first encounter story is the crucial one? Maybe it does work backward from there: setting, contact, what makes for an interesting encounter, and so forth.

I’ve changed a lot since I first read the book, and I like to think that I’ve gotten more sophisticated in how I read things, so I was all the more pleased at how well Ringworld withstood grown-up scrutiny.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/09/26/ringworld-by-larry-niven/

Sep 26 2006

Premature Evaluation: Khrushchev by William Taubman

Wish an 876-page biography could be longer? Not often, but definitely with this one. I don’t know the literature well enough to say for sure, but it sure feels like a definitive take on an important figure of 20th century history.

William Taubman combines the virtues of journalist and scholar in his biography of Nikita Khrushchev. The journalist has tracked down relatives, surviving contemporaries, former comrades and many other people with first-hand knowledge important to understanding Khrushchev’s life. He talked with them, a few only by phone, but many in person and repeatedly. For contentious questions, he’s tried to get all sides. He sifts the evidence judiciously and lets readers know his views. The end-notes are filled with citations that begin “Author’s interview with…” That Taubman did this mostly in 1991 and 1993, as the Soviet Union was collapsing with Russian and Ukrainian society both in upheaval, makes the achievement even more impressive.

The scholar was no less relentless. He’s used archival sources, diaries, letters, unpublished documents and other primary materials, along with a broad range of analysis and background in English and Russian. This is a study in getting things right.

But Taubman does more than that. He uncovers aspects of Khrushchev’s life only known previously to a small circle: Nina Petrovna was actually his third wife, and not his second, as was generally thought; Khrushchev’s son’s wife had a son from a previous relationship, and after Khrushchev’s son died in WWII and his wife’s arrest by the security organs, this boy became literally a street child in Moscow and Kiev. Taubman does not dwell on these potentially salacious stories, but he brings them out and describes what he thinks they show about Khrushchev’s character. The story of the second wife occupies just a page or two, one reason I wish the bok were longer.

Taubman also gives a sense of the environment Khrushchev operated in:

The full extent of Soviet unpreparedness became clear only after [the German invasion of] June 22 [1941]. The purges had demolished the officer corps, not just leading marshals and generals, but all military district commanders, 90 percent of district chiefs of staff and deputies, 80 percent of corps and divisional commanders, and 90 percent of staff officers and chiefs of staff.

Shortly after the war, Khrushchev sends a list of about 100 Komsomol leaders to the NKVD to find out how many of them had survived purges and war. None had.

I’m about a third of the way through, but as near as I can tell, Taubman’s book has everything one could want in a biography. It’s vivid, it’s exhaustively researched, it’s well paced. Still to come, Khrushchev’s final ascension after Stalin’s death, the Cuban missile crisis, his fall from power and his final years as a non-person in the USSR. Premature evaluation: terrific.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/09/26/premature-evaluation-khrushchev-by-william-taubman/

Sep 20 2006

Baltic Framework

Our recent posts on governments in Stockholm and Schwerin are as good a reason as any to highlight Northern Shores, by Alan Palmer. (It’s published in the US as The Baltic.) I had intended to write a premature evaluation, but then I finished the book, which I picked up during a business trip to Helsinki, so this is slightly more considered.

Northern Shores offer a solid structure for building a working knowledge of Northern Europe. Who ruled what, when and, to a limited extent, why. Empires ebbed and flowed across and around the Baltic, and it’s easy to lose track. Palmer writes clearly on who owned what, who was related to whom, and he even has a decent go at the Schleswig-Holstein problem, which Palmerston quipped that only three people ever understood, one who was dead, one who was mad and one who had forgotten. (The Wikipedia article on the subject is, er, exhaustive.) Russians, Prussians, Swedes, Danes and Poles, with a smattering of smaller peoples, are the main protagonists. Or rather, the rulers of same, history in this case being the story of who was in charge of a given piece of property.

Which meant that I did not like large parts of the book. The first quarter or fifth or so I enjoyed because it goes back to the earliest periods for which there is historical evidence, describes Viking links with Constantinople, addresses northern paganism and covers other elements that give a good sense of how far and how peculiar a past this distant are, and how long Europe has been linked across its length and breadth. I learned a lot.

But then the majority of the book chronicles which noble houses fought when for what land. There’s more to it, of course, but that’s the main subject. I like the histories I read to have more of an argument, to have more of a narrative and to give a better feel for the places and periods in question. I suspect that at least part of my objection is generational; if I read Palmer’s account of an event in 1939 correctly, then he’s nearing 80, and we should all be so lucky as to write a book this good at that age. (One nice turn of phrase has the French candidate abandoning the Polish-Lithuanian throne to become Henry III of France; Palmer writes that “Warsaw seemed well worth a miss,” echoing Henry IV’s more famous formulation.) Still, that means Palmer’s from a generation when it was simply understood that kings and battles were the stuff of history, and I suppose that in recounting what he does, he’s making the argument that rulers and their conquests are what history should be about. For historians of later generations, however, the political framework is a good place to start, but certainly not all there is.

Another irritation is Palmer’s apparent assumption that contemporary nation-states are the inevitable and natural result of the region’s history. This is particularly clear in his writing about the emergence of Sweden. Why is Sweden a single polity with Stockholm as its capital? That is not a question Palmer seems to think worth asking; he is impatient with regionalism on the eastern half of the Scandinavian peninsula and approving of royal centralism. Why the one prevailed over the other is precisely what I would have found interesting; history is contingent, and exploring those contingencies makes reading history interesting.

I did learn a bit more about the interwar Baltic republics, and I learned that Poland was the first country in the region to throw its democracy away. And the book picks up, as one might expect from a British historian, when it turns to the Second World War. Viewing the conflict and the postwar settlement from a northern perspective is different, and emphasized again how much where you stand depends on where you sit. Finland’s experience demonstrates this admirably.

Booklist’s review of the US edition says The Baltic should “enjoy longevity in libraries,” which I think is about right. It’s good that the book is there, and if you want to check on something, you can, but reading it all the way through as a narrative is not something I would recommend.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/09/20/baltic-framework/

Sep 20 2006

Noted With Pleasure: Reindeer People

One of the other books that I picked up while in Helsinki was Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, by Piers Vitebsky. (US paperback coming in December.) He’s an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, and the reindeer people are his research specialty. The book, however, is an engrossing synthesis aimed at a general audience. More than that, though, it’s a personal account of living with nomads, clashes of cultures (ancient, Soviet and post-Soviet) and vivid personalities, all played out in a beautiful and harsh land. I picked up the book in part because I had just missed meeting some reindeer people when I was in northern Mongolia a few years back, and I wanted to learn what their way of life was all about.

I got much more: how reindeer are partially domesticated, what the coming of Soviet power meant to the far North, how people are surviving its ebb, how reindeer migrate, what Arctic cold means in practical terms, to name just a few. Vitebsky writes well, he’s chosen interesting ground to cover, he can sketch people, relate key anecdotes and sustain narratives about their conflicts. Layer upon layer, like the clothing the Eveny wear in winter, Reindeer People envelops the reader, imparting something of those distant lands.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/09/20/noted-with-pleasure-reindeer-people/