Post Office by Charles Bukowski

This is a memoir of the soul-killing job that sucked nearly twelve years out of Bukowski’s life, with a lot of booze and women thrown in for good measure. I had read it before, but it was actually funnier the second time around. It does have a certain serious social relevance: what do people with no skills and no education do to survive in a capitalist society? All of his co-workers thought he was finished when he finally quit his job, but strangely enough when he quit working at shit jobs and began to write his luck turned completely around. Let’s all raise a glass to the man who was fucked by the system and then turned around and gave it a good hard fuck himself. Truly an inspiration to the working man.

Permanent link to this article:

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

I found this play strangely moving and thought-provoking. The legally enforced sexual morality that the plot hinges on seems incomprehensible to us today, but more interesting was the way in which Shakespeare pushes the issue of justice vs. mercy. Mercy wins in the end, but only after some improbable twists that suggest that justice in this world cannot be practiced at all without some measure of hypocrisy. A fine and underrated drama, one that makes me examine my innermost convictions.

Permanent link to this article:

Sentence of the Day

For a small break from Brussels and the economic crisis:

Nothing fades so quickly or so tackily as a Soviet resort.

One of the lighter observations (on p. 139) from The Spirit-Wrestlers by Philip Marsden, a journey across southern Russia and the Caucasus in search of various religious non-conformists who fell afoul of both Russian and Soviet states.

Permanent link to this article:

Aid Worker Shashlik

From Geert Mak’s visit to Sarajevo in 1999:

Batinic leans over and looks me straight in the eye. ‘Tell me, Geert, honestly: what kind of people are you sending us anyway? The ones at the top are usually fine. But otherwise, with only a few exceptions, the people I have to deal with are third-class adventurers who would probably have trouble finding a job in their own country.’ It makes him furious. ‘To them, we’re some kind of aboriginals. They think they have to explain what a toilet it, what a television is, and how we should organise a school. The arrogance! They say Bosnians are lazy people, but it takes them a week to do a day’s work. And you should hear them chattering away about it! At the same time, everyone sees how much money they spend on themselves and their position. They put three quarters of all their energy into that.’

Not a new complaint, but pungently put. The classic retort, of course, is that if the local people hadn’t made such a terrible mess of their own country, they wouldn’t need the international aid. Mak’s companion does not spare his fellow Bosnians either.

We order another drink, and Batinic starts complaining about the corruption in Bosnia, the rise of religious leaders in the city, the enthusiastic discussions at the university about ‘the Iranian model’. ‘Sarajevo isn’t Sarajevo any more. The city has filled with runaway farmers…’
Batinic’s pessimism has had the upper hand again for some time now.

In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak, p. 806

Permanent link to this article:

Sentence of the Day

Describing some events in the last months of 1989:

Meanwhile, an unknown KGB agent in Dresden, Vladimir Putin, had tried to pile so many documents into a burning stove that the thing exploded

In Europe, by Geert Mak, p.718

I’m nearing the end of the book, and it’s living up to my initial impression. More, perhaps, when I’m all the way through.

Permanent link to this article:

The Korean War 1950-1953 by Carter Malkasian

This was a more or less conventional history of the Korean War, focusing on Cold War strategies and policies. It notes that the Korean Was the first and only war in which the major powers…the Soviet Union, China, the United States, and its allies…actually engaged in direct armed conflict with each other. MacArthur is given more favorable treatment than he deserves, but the author argues that Matthew Ridgeway was the greater military leader. This book has a rather official military tone, understandable given that the author is a former soldier and professional military historian, but it is still a fairly good, concise treatment of a subject that more Americans should make an effort to understand.

Permanent link to this article:

Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Celine has a way of writing about perfectly horrible experiences in a way that makes you laugh out loud. This book is a work of genius, although not quite as good as *Journey to the End of Night*. It’s too bad he didn’t write more. He has an uncanny way of finding humor in all the petty miseries of life, and humor is possibly the best antidote for such misery.

Permanent link to this article:

The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop

This was a marvellous book, a concise introduction to a vast subject. There are many fascinating aspects to this period, all of which receive their due in this work. Yet I have to say that overall the Middle Ages were a low point in the history of Western Civilization, and I think the tendency to romanticize this period is entirely misguided. Medieval Europe was not enlightened…but it was certainly not boring, as this book attests. I like to think that if I had been born in the Middle Ages I would have been a monk, but more likely with my luck I would have been a serf. The lot of serfs was not enviable, but at least they had job security. The knights and nobles of Christendom were mostly a horrible lot who have been given more favorable press than they deserve. The record of the clergy is mixed. Remarkably, the bourgeoisie emerges as the true builders and pioneers of modern civilization. But this book makes me very glad to be living in this period.

Permanent link to this article:

Premature Evaluation: Sundown Towns

An important story, very badly told.

Before and, more crucially, immediately after the American Civil War, African-Americans were widely dispersed throughout the country. By the 1940s, however, blacks living outside the South were concentrated in particular areas of the largest cities. In Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism James Loewen asks how that happened, and the answer is that white Americans drove them out. The book’s title comes from signs that were posted outside of many — just how many is one of the key preoccupations of the book — cities and towns that read (roughly), “Nigger don’t let the sun go down on you in Town-Name.”

Loewen’s research suggests that the vast majority of towns, counties, suburbs and cities that were all white, or nearly all-white, were that way by design, and were kept that way by a combination of restriction and violence. In the first state that he examined in detail, Illinois, Loewen found that more than 95 per cent of the lily-white towns were sundown towns. In neighboring Indiana, the rate was also above 90 per cent.

The repercussions of this hidden history shape the American culture and landscape to this day. And while obviously much has changed, towns that were sundown by policy persisted at least until the 1980s, and some probably remain that way even today. It’s an important story.

Unfortunately, as a narrator, Loewen is well-nigh insufferable. There is too much signposting, too much of him telling you what an idiot everyone else is for not knowing what he knows, too much condescension toward the reader. (An online example.) It doesn’t look like there’s a monograph that the book is based on, which is a pity, because Sundown Towns is a particularly bad sort of popularization. I may slog on towards the end, in hopes that the details make it worth enduring Loewen’s presence. If not, I’ll stick with the take-away: an all-white town in America is almost certainly not that way by coincidence, but rather the end result of state and private power to keep black Americans out.

Permanent link to this article:

City on Fire

On April 16, 1947, the SS Grandcamp exploded in the harbor of Texas City, Texas. The ship was carrying ammonium nitrate as part of Marshall Plan relief for post-war Europe. Ammonium nitrate is both an effective fertilizer and a potent explosive, and the Grandcamp was carrying more than 2300 tons of the substance when a fire below turned into an explosion that produced a mushroom cloud reminiscent of an atomic blast. The Texas City waterfront was also home to chemical plants, and storage facilities for numerous petrochemical products. Many of these also caught fire and exploded in part. Several hundred people died; the exact total is unknown because of the completeness of the destruction at the explosion’s center.

City on Fire, by Bill Minutaglio, tells the story of the explosion with both verve and sympathy. Nor does he skimp on the structural factors that contributed the disaster: Texas City was (and most likely still is) run by and for the corporations who have built industry there; the habits of wartime and the fervor of the Cold War had left people deferential to the government. The companies, for example, fought hard to keep the city from annexing the land where their facilities were, which would have made them liable for local taxes. As it was, they did not even see fit to pay for the upkeep of a fireboat within the harbor. The port of nearby Houston had prohibited shipments of ammonium nitrate; Texas City had not.

Minutaglio follows about a dozen people from just before the disaster into the chaotic aftermath, with some follow-up about each one of them, or the survivors of those who perished. He keeps the book moving at a breakneck pace, writing in the present tense, and in a style somewhat reminiscent of period newsreels. This approach grated at first, and I was never fully happy with it, though I can see why he made the choice, as it is very effective for the dramatic events at the heart of the story.

A little more background would not have been remiss. The book is just over 275 pages, with a very generously spaced layout; surely he could have said something more about the chemical itself, about how the city came to be built, a little more scene setting. In choosing to tell the story through the dozen people he selects, Minutaglio seems to have chosen not to give more context.

It’s too bad, because he writes that he had been interested in the tale for nearly 20 years. I was left wondering where the rest was. Another unfortunate aspect is that the book was published in 2003. It was being written (most likely) in late 2001, early 2002, and the cloud of 9/11 hangs heavily over parts of the story. Faced with writing about a devastating explosion that resulted in numerous casualties, Minutaglio could not have ignored the similarities; but it would have been a better book if he had found a way.

There are European threads to the story: the ship was French, and the fertilizer itself was bound for Europe. Major ammonium nitrate disasters happened in Germany in 1921, and later in 1947 in France. It’s well told. I also suspect that another book, which Minutaglio graciously acknowledges, might have been more to my taste. Not that it’s likely to be found in a Tbilisi library…

Permanent link to this article: