Apr 06 2006

Premature Evaluation: The Fatal Shore

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, was published 20 years ago; this is not breaking news. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.

I was vaguely aware of The Fatal Shore of course–it had been a big seller when I worked in the book business, even four years after its initial release–but hadn’t ever had cause to read it. The spur came from Patrick O’Brian, and his acknowledgement of Hughes’ book as an unusually helpful background source for the Aubrey-Maturin novel Clarissa Oakes. (And how should we recognize O’Brian’s place as a contemporary European author? Does it matter that much of his personal history was invented? Or that he found his greatest popularity in America?)

About a third of the way through, I’m taken by both the scope and the details. Hughes is not a historian by trade, but an art critic, and a popular one rather than an exclusively academic one. (The same mix makes his Barcelona absorbing and informative.) Most directly, that means that he’s used to making pointed judgements and writing clearly about them. That means he gets off some terrific one-liners, and generally draws vivid characters. For example, Rev. Samuel Marsden, one of the colony’s early wealthy landowners and a thoroughgoing prejudiced conservative, was “a grasping Evangelical missionary with heavy shoulders and the face of a petulant ox …[he] showed few … instincts to mercy, but focused his considerable energies on getting land, breeding sturdy suffolk sheep, preaching hellfire sermons and (as magistrate at Parramatta) subjecting convicts to dramatic punishment–hence his nichname, ‘The Flogging Parson’.” (p. 187)

Sometimes Hughes exercises his drollery on the broad sweep of history:

The colonization of Ireland … had been going on since the twelfth century, when the first English Pope, Adrian IV, encuoraged his fellow Anglo-Norman, King Henry II, to invade Ireland and “proclaim the truths of the Christian religion to a rude and ignorant people.” When the English knights landed and started hewing their red way through the Gaelic resistance, Ireland had been Christian for seven hundred years. (p. 183)

Or, relating the unhappy fate of a liberally-minded early transportee: “Palmer died [near Guam] of cholera in June 1802. The Spanish priests, hearing of his radical opinions, refused his body Christian burial; and so the most civilized and liberal-soulded gentleman to breathe Australian air in early colonial days was buried among pirates in a common grave on the beach, until an American captain (himself a man of reforming opinions) took the trouble in 1804 to retrieve Palmer’s body and bring it back to burial in a Boston church.” (p. 180)

Or, on justice in the old country: “Robert Macqueen, Lord Braxfield, Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland … was a coarse cunning old drunk whose remarks during this trial won long notoriety. (When one of the Jacobins pointed out that Christ himself had been a reformer, Braxfield chuckled and snorted: ‘Muckle he made o’ that–He was hanget.’)” (p. 176)

These selections are drawn from a fairly brief part of the text, but it is like that the whole way through. Hughes has no fear at all of pungent judgements, and that makes his history both personable and lively. It’s not a perfect book. For instance, the transition from the “starvation years” of the colony’s beginnings to the slightly more stable situation about two decades later is more assumed than described. I would have liked more on how that came about. And treating many things topically means that he runs back and forth through time quite a bit, and someone not familiar with the territory can sometimes get lost in the differences between the 1820s and 1850s.

Still, these are small quibbles with an enormously satisfying book. It offers insight into class, colonization, trade in the early 19th century, the clash of European empires, how quickly developments can come and much more. Hughes is an opinionated guide to early Australia, one who makes the journey all the more pleasurable with brilliant observation.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/04/06/premature-evaluation-the-fatal-shore/

Mar 31 2006

Greatness, Andante

Two years ago, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung began publishing a series of 50 great novels from the 20th century. It’s a good list, and I’ve been slowly reading my way through it. Emphasis on slowly. The newspaper never planned on keeping the editions in print indefinitely, and indeed, the smartly designed and inexpensive (EUR 4.90!) hardbacks are officially out of print. (The series’ original home page is now 404, just to add to the indignity.) The Sueddeutsche has followed up with series of popular music (mostly mediocre because of rights issues), children’s books (inviting, but not yet inviting enough for me to actually buy one) and now mysteries (a genre I tend not to read much of).

I’ve been writing capsule reviews periodically as I make my way — shortest to longest as a general rule — through the list. It’s been a while since the last installment, so here goes.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers, no. 35. Yes, I made it all the way through school and a bachelor’s degree in the South without reading this book. On the one hand, it might have been a formative experience, as it apparently is for many younger readers (though not as many as the other classic Southern one-hit-wonder, To Kill a Mockingbird). On the other, with a few more years’ perspective, I can appreciate the accuracy of McCullers’ portraits, how difficult it must have been to capture aspects of black culture as they were, not as white culture of the time would have seen them. The hard times in the South, the harshness, the peculiarities and the warmth of a vanished way of life, all of these are vividly presented; the human stories in the novel transcend their setting, but it is the note-perfect realization of that setting that gives them much of their power.

Sanctuary, William Faulkner, no. 25. If the McCullers was the Sueddeutsche‘s American South for beginners, this is the advanced book, though accessible compared with Faulkner’s more daunting works. (This last is presumption on my part, as I haven’t actually read any of his other books, even though my family comes, in part, from the Mississippi county that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha is modeled on. It’s Yalobusha, though I can’t say anything about closer correspondences.) At any rate, I have a hard time seeing how this one will work in translation. It was hard enough as someone who knows the period and places intimately. That’s because much of the import of the action is in what people don’t say. Like another book in the list, Uwe Johnson’s Speculations About Jacob, you have to know a good bit about what’s not being shown on the page to get a firm grasp on what is. This is probably a good way to include a Faulkner book, pay homage to his innovations, introduce people to what’s great about his work, but not scare them off completely.

All Souls Day, Cees Nooteboom, no. 33. At first, I thought I had wandered into the book of a Wim Wenders movie, probably Wings of Desire because of the Berlin setting. The connection to film is no accident, as the lead character is a Dutch filmmaker who finds he is spending more and more of his time in the German capital. This book is one of the most recent on the Sueddeutsche’s list, and I’m glad they made this foray into the contemporary. The action also appears a bit aimless, as in Wenders’ movies, but plot is not what the novel is about. It’s all about getting to know the characters, seeing the world through their eyes, spending time with them as they interact. That’s all there is, but it encompasses a great deal of life, post-war Europe’s history, the uncertainties of love.

The Assault, Henry Mulisch, no. 19. In the waning days of World War II, the Dutch resistance attacks a German officer on a side street of a small suburb. His body is dragged from where it fell to a different place in front of another house. Shortly thereafter, other German soldiers retaliate. This is no grand action in the scheme of the war, but it is the starting point for a lifetime of repercussions. Who did what to whom, and what became of most of them in the decades that follow. Man’s inhumanity to man, but also mercy in the unlikeliest of places. Gripping. Challenging.

This last book is also a reminder of how many of the post-1950 books address World War II, directly or indirectly. Of the ones that I have read, or know enough to say something about, 13 of the 33 books published in 1950 or later center on the war.

Jurek Becker, Bronstein’s Kinder
Elias Canetti, Voices of Marrakesh
Friedrich Duerrenmatt, The Judge and His Executioner
Guenter Grass, Cat and Mouse
Graham Greene, The Third Man
Wolfgang Koeppen, The Greenhouse
Siegfried Lenz, German Hour
Primo Levi, The Periodic System
Harry Mulisch, The Assault
Cees Nooteboom, All Souls Day
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Jorge Semprun, What a Beautiful Sunday!
Andrzej Szczypiorski, The Beautiful Mrs Seidenmann

Perhaps it’s not surprising that World War II is so central, but sobering nonetheless.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/03/31/greatness-andante/

Mar 16 2006

Wisdom of the Ages

The Roman Empire has won significance, and its rulers became famous and mighty, because numerous nobles and sages from various countries congregated there […] As settlers come from various countries and provinces, they bring with them various languages and customs, various instructive concepts and weapons, which decorate and glorify the royal court, but intimidate foreign powers. A country which has only one language and one kind of custom is weak and fragile. Therefore, my son, I instruct you to face [the settlers] and treat them decently, so that they will prefer to stay with you rather than elsewhere, because if you were to destroy all that I have built and squander what I have collected, then your empire would doubtless suffer considerable loss.

Thus King St Stephen I of Hungary, to his son, in an exhortation probably drawn up by a German monk. As quoted in The Hungarians by Paul Lendvai. Emphasis added.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/03/16/wisdom-of-the-ages/

Feb 11 2006

Premature Evaluation: Grace and Power

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, I’m not trying to sell a review of Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House, by Sally Bedell Smith. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.

Isn’t it neat to read a book of history and biography that nearly dispenses with the politics and the policy? It really is all about the private world, and the political only occasionally intrudes to give a frame of reference, or to explain why Jackie and her sister Lee went off to India. (Because they had promised Nehru that they would. Only Jackie didn’t really want to, was pouty about it for a while, but eventually went and charmed both Nehru and Indira, had a grand time and totally helped out US-India relations.)

There’s quite a bit about who did what with whom, which is tasty, because the whos and the whoms were doing a lot with each other. On the other hand, it’s neither scandalmongering nor salacious. There’s a reason the Camelot legend has stuck: the Kennedys really were glamourous, they really were smart and rich and stylish, they really were quite a break from the Eisenhower years. And at the end of JFK’s first year in office, his approval ratings were still around 75 percent. But there I go, letting the political back in.

The book is about the people, their traits, their foibles and their experiences. What did JFK and Macmillan talk about in private? Who danced the twist when it was introduced to the White House? How did Jackie handle the press, and the pressure?

If there were only one book on JFK’s presidency, this one would be inadequate. But there are thousands, and this one fills a unique niche. I’m glad I’m reading it, even though I’m still only half-way through.

And boy does this portrait of smart, energetic people make me think GWB is the anti-JFK.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/02/11/premature-evaluation-grace-and-power/

Feb 06 2006

Premature Evaluation: On the Brink: The Trouble with France

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, the market for reviews of revised editions of books on France originally published in 1998 is bound to be small. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.

On the Brink: The Trouble with France, by Jonathan Fenby, is meant to be an exploration of France’s uniqueness, and its importance for Europe. As he writes in the preface, “Without a healthy France, there is no Europe.” What I actually found in the first several chapters, though, was a description of the specifically French versions of common European tropes.

Attachment to the land? Check. (Everywhere I’ve ever been.) Pride in a long and improbable history? Check. (Again.) Distinctive regions? Check. (Even Latvia has regions.) Harkening back to a glorious golden age? Check. (Remember the great Moravian empire? The Moravians do.) Possibly exaggerated sense of its role in world history? Check. (The Estonians, with a population barely bigger than metropolitan Munich, think they took down the USSR.) Distaste for its political class? Long struggle to separate church from state? Declining rural populations? Demographic worries? Far right parties regularly drawing about 15 percent of votes? Check, to one and all. And so on and so forth.

It’s nice to learn more about how these general characteristics manifest themselves in France — since I know far too little about the place — but the implied argument is that they make France different, whereas I saw them as illustrating how much France resembles other European countries.

Don’t get me wrong, the specifics are important; indeed, they are much of what Europe is about. And chapter 9 makes some of the contrasts specific by comparing France with England. On the other hand, given how England differs from much of the rest of the continent, there may not be too much gained for readers from other countries.

I’m interested in the stories Fenby tells, in the details he marshals and in the overall portrait that he paints. I’m just not convinced that he’s showing how France is either different or important. I’ve got another 150 pages to go, and this is a premature evaluation.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2006/02/06/premature-evaluation-on-the-brink-the-trouble-with-france/

Dec 18 2005

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single quotation on the cover of a book is not a reliable guide to its contents. Nevertheless, when the quotation clearly comes from a review, and the review comes from a reasonably reputable newspaper, for such I imagine the Independent to be, some credence could be allowed.…

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff was originally published on The Frumious Consortium

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/12/18/terence-this-is-stupid-stuff-2/

Dec 18 2005

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single quotation on the cover of a book is not a reliable guide to its contents.

Nevertheless, when the quotation clearly comes from a review, and the review comes from a reasonably reputable newspaper, for such I imagine the Independent to be, some credence could be allowed. Thus beguiled, and influenced in no small measure by my own visit in 1993, I bought The Parthenon by Mary Beard.

The quotation, by Michael Bywater, who is not, as near as a brief Google will reveal, related to Beard, reads, “Witty and humane … brings impeccable scholarship to a wider audience.”

Thus on page 7,

This Parthenon [in Nashville, Tennessee] reached a wider international audience through Robert Altman’s movie Nashville, his epic satire on the tawdriness of the American dream, showbiz and politics. The final scenes of the film are set among its columns draped with the American flag, where a country-and-western benefit concert is being staged for a no-hope candidate in a presidential election; a characteristically American occasion culminating in a characteristically American murder, as the lead singer is gunned down on the Parthenon’s portico by an apparently motiveless assassin. Athenian classicism meets the Stars and Stripes.

If this is what passes for witty, humane and impeccable at Cambridge, things have reached a low ebb indeed. This is the kind of judgement that, followed by a statement that the sky is black at night, would prompt me to go outside and look. It instantly renders the rest of the book suspect.

The knee-jerk anti-Americanism on p. 7 is the worst passage in the forty-odd pages of the book I have read so far, but the sneering tone continues, unleavened by scholarly or stylistic virtues. I suspect I won’t be reading much more.

Profile Books, which threatens to make this book the first in a series, should be apologizing to the trees it sacrificed.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/12/18/terence-this-is-stupid-stuff/

Nov 24 2005

The System of the World

Sorry, this is not a post proclaiming a political theory of everything. It’s a note saying “‘Tis done!” I picked up Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World sooner than I thought and finished it up right quick.

Previous posts on the Baroque Cycle are here, here, here and here. The argument of the trilogy and further thoughts below the fold. Spoilers abound. Doug Muir, I’m finished, we can discuss.

I think the crux of the whole undertaking is on p. 675 (US hardback edition) of The System of the World, in the chapter “Philosophick Showdown at Leicester House.”

First, though, [Princess Caroline] wrenched a burning taper from a chair-side candelabrum. “As a rule I am averse to burning things in libraries, but this must be reckoned no loss at all, compared to the damage that the two of you are inflicting on Philosophy by your bickering.” She bent her knees and executed a graceful descent until she was sitting on th efloor beside the hearth, skirts arranged around her. “I see things sometimes, in dreams or in daydreams–some of them I quite fancy, for they seem to carry meaning. Those I remember, and think back on. There is one such vision that has got stuck in my head, quite as melodies often do, and I can’t seem to get rid of it. I shall try to do justice to it thusly.” And she reached out with the candle and let its flame lave the underside of the globe. The globe was of wood, and too heavy to catch fire readily; but paper gores printed with images of continents had been pasted over it. The paper caught fire, and a ragged flame-ring began to spread, consuming the cartographers work and leaving behind it a blackened and featureless sphere. “Sophie kept trying to tell me, before she died, that a new System of the World was being made. Oh, it is not a terribly novel thing to say. I know, and Sophie knew, that the third volume of your Principia Mathematica bears that name, Sir Isaac. Since she died, I have become quite convinced that she was correct–and moreover that the System is to be born, not at Versailles, but here–that this shall be its Prime Meridian, and all else shall be reckoned, and ruled, from here. It is a pleasing notion that there is to be such a System, and that I might play some small part in being its midwife. I think of the globe, with its neat parallels and meridians, as the Emblem of this System–what the Cross is to Christianity. But I am troubled by the vision of such a Globe in flames. What you are looking at here is a poor rendition of it; in my nightmares, it is ever so much more lovely and dreadful.”
“What do you suppose that vision signifies, highness?” asked Daniel Waterhouse.
“That this System, if it is set up wrong, might be doomed from the start,” said Caroline. “Oh, it shall be a wonder to behold at first, and all shall marvel at its regularity, its oeconomy, and the ingenuity of them who framed it. Perhaps it shall work as planned for a decade, or a century, or more. And yet if it has been made wrong at the beginning, it shall burn, in the end, and my vision shall be realized in a manner infinitely more destructive than this.” She gave the smoking globe a nudge. It had been wholly scoured by the flames and become a trackless black orb.

So there we have it.

Along the way, of course, the Cycle was many other things as well, but Caroline’s speech spells out quite explicitly what Stephenson has been up to all along.

I was sorry to see Eliza sidelined for so much of the book. I liked her much better than I thought I would–I particularly enjoyed the epistlatory parts of The Confusion–and having her drift mostly off-stage in System was a loss. I also forgot just how Jack landed in prison somewhere in the middle of System. I would have thought that such a major turning point in the plot would be more memorable, but maybe it stuck in the mind less because it was so clearly important to what the author wanted. Subordinated to the plot, as it were.

Finally, if I remember the reviews from the time, many people were disappointed in the ending. What’s not to like? Everyone lives happily ever after. Jack’s rescue from the gallows is no more improbable than the rest of the story line. Because the book (and trilogy) is actually coming to an end, there was more suspense that elsewhere in the Cycle that Jack would actually suffer something irreparable. Eliza loved him after all. And the King of the Vagabonds is, in retirement, the equal of the King of France. I found it a much better ending than, say, Cryptonomicon.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/11/24/the-system-of-the-world/

Nov 11 2005

In the Blink of a T-Shirt

Malcolm Gladwell tells great stories. In Blink, his latest book, he relates how the Getty Museum nearly bought an amazing forgery, why Warren Harding became US president, how to tell if a married couple will divorce and why coronary care can improve if doctors have less information.

The thesis is that humans have sophisticated systems for reaching decisions almost instantaneously. This intuition — sometimes raw, sometimes exquisitely trained — often overshadows reason, which then becomes mere rationalization. Experts’ intuition saved the Getty from an embarrassing acquisition, while average Americans’ intuition (and, more directly, the intuitions of delegates to the Republican convention) failed them and brought in a mediocre president.

Gladwell is convincing in his depiction of rapid decision-making. He reaches for more:

[W]e are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fagility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious. …

Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. We can prevent the people fighting wars or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.

Unfortunately at that point, there’s only one more page in the book.

The stories are terrific, the insights real and occasionally useful. But the promise of a guide for knowing when to trust expertise and intuition, and when to ignore them, remains unfulfilled.

Pietra Rivoli succumbs to a social scientist’s vice in giving her book a title that’s far too long: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy – An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade. Which is a shame because it’s a snappy account that illuminates many of the vexing questions of globalization.

She takes a common souvenir T-shirt as her starting point. It’s made of cotton that was grown in West Texas, protected by agricultural subsidies but also part of a tough entrepreneurial tradition coupled with good institutions and scientific research. The cotton is woven into cloth and eventually made into a T-shirt in China, home of famously cheap labor but also shedding textile jobs faster than Western countries. Finally, it goes into the recycling bin and encounters a free market for the first time as part of the used clothing trade in Africa.

Here’s her thesis:

My T-shirt’s life suggests, however, that the importance of markets might be overstated by both globalizers and critics. While my T-shirt’s life story is certainly influenced by competitive economic markets, the key events in the T-shirt’s life are less about competitive markets than they are about politics, history, and creative maneuvers to avoid markets. Even those who laud the effects of highly competitive markets are loathe to experience them personally, so the winners at various stages of my T-shirt’s life are adept not so much at competing in markets but at avoiding them.

Micro study illuminates macro trends. An economic book that’s enjoyable to read and filled with real people, from sharecroppers to people leaving the farm in China to clothing entrepreneurs in Tanzania.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/11/11/in-the-blink-of-a-t-shirt/

Oct 12 2005

The Con-fusion

I’m probably the last blogger still reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, and chances are good that I won’t take on the third part, The System of the World, immediately after finishing the second, The Confusion. Not because the books aren’t good, just that it is a lot to read consecutively.

The good news is that the main characters, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the Improbable Welshwoman, are much more interesting than they were in Quicksilver.

Jack acquires more dimensions, and as Eliza develops, she becomes less improbable and more of a comprehensible person as well. Additional good news is that there’s much more of a plot than in the first, and it drives the book rapidly forward. In fact, there are a number of plots, all conspiring to move the narrative along, which it mostly does at a good clip. In Jack’s half of the book, the plot involves escaping slavery, stealing precious metals from Spain’s Viceroy in the New World, and being pursued around the world by the consequences. In Eliza’s half, it involves court intrigue at Versailles, the war between England and France and the establishment of money.

That brief description makes Eliza’s part of the book — the two are interwoven, or con-fused as Stephenson would have it — sound drier, but I tended to enjoy it more. There’s a terrific epistalatory novel tucked in among everything else, and it’s all in Eliza’s half. The characters are more clearly drawn, more rounded and more sketched with a slightly more subtle hand in her half as well.

In Jack’s half, there is more out-and-out swashbuckling, but the wheels of the plot are also sometimes too visible. Further, the machinations necessary to get some things into place for Cryptonomicon are also sometimes too plain. The annoying authorial winks at the reader are still there, though fewer this time around. At one point, though, a character declaims, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo.” It’s apropos of not much, but stuck out like a sore thumb. The last long section of Jack’s story concerns a sea voyage; Stephenson is not nearly as good at this as Patrick O’Brian (who is?), whose books I have been reading steadily of late, so I tended to skim a bit more in that section.

In fact, I made my peace with skimming for pages at a time in this section of the Cycle. The author may have found every word necessary, but I didn’t, and I enjoyed it more for having leaved through several sections going ok, ok, not much to see here.

Unlike, say, Dorothy Dunnett, Stephenson does not put significant sympathetic characters in existential danger. As this is the second book of three, there is no chance that Jack and Eliza will not survive. Some of the villains were dispatched unexpectedly, which was nicely done. But even apart from characters that the books are not built around, i.e., Jack, Eliza and Daniel Waterhouse, or the ones history tells us survive, e.g., Louis XIV, George I, sympathetic characters are seldom in real danger. This tends to lessen the suspense of the book and expose the structural challenges in the middle part of a trilogy.

There is less of an Argument in this book, the author being content to develop what he set up in the first one. The Hanoverians are coming to England; France’s structures are straining in ways that will lead to 1789; rumors of the Enlightenment are heard as far away as Mexico City; and the greatness of Asian civilizations is sketched — Edo (Tokyo) is said to be the largest city in the World, the Great Mogul’s empire in India is depicted — but the clear interest is Europe’s rising.

The third book is set up as a conflict between Jack and Isaac Newton; symbolically of chaos and order, although Jack has to bring about chaos methodically and Newton is rather disordered himself. At the end, I suspect we will see the modern world on stage and all of the treasures buried that will be dug up in Cryptonomicon.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/10/12/the-con-fusion/