Pelosi to Syria?

pelosi.jpgNancy Pelosi has my respect for many accomplishments. I think she was an excellent minority leader, overcoming any concerns that her politics or those of the district she represents were too liberal for her to be an effective national leader.

She kept her caucus together, and I think this played a major role in outcome of the 2006 elections. She did an admirable job of leading the Democrats to their first majority in over a decade, and has been off to a great start in helping them re-learn how to handle that power.

The Democratic House achieved an impressive first hundred days and Pelosi is rightfully proud. I think she has also done well to avoid the temptation of overreach thus far, but her proposed trip to Syria is a mistake:

The White House has criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plans to stop in Syria next week during a Middle East trip that began Friday.

She will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since relations deteriorated between Damascus and Washington.

The United States has accused Syria of aiding the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq with weapons and fighters. Syria also is accused of supporting the militant extremist groups Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and militia, and Hamas.

"We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria," said White House deputy spokeswoman Dana Perino. "This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the (Prime Minister Fouad) Siniora government in Lebanon and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow through its borders to Iraq.

It gives me no pleasure to takes sides with an administration whose absolute refusal to talk to Syria and Iran has borne no fruit, and may in fact have exacerbated the violence in Israel, Lebanon and Iraq. But disagree though I might with this approach, and with the administration view of the unquestionable power of the executive, I do think high-level diplomacy is the prerogative of the President.

I have no patience for those who think vehement domestic dissent from administration policies (even foreign or military policies) is unpatriotic or treasonous. But this is not a few congressmen on a fact-finding mission. I think a line is crossed when the Speaker of the House, who might be viewed as equivalent to the leader of the opposition or the head of parliament, opens diplomatic channels which the President has chosen, for better or worse, to keep closed.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

ohara_appointment.jpgModern Library's list of the top 100 novels of the 20th Century was a revelatory reading list for me when it first came out several years ago. Though I now recognize the tremendous weaknesses of the list (most importantly that it only involves English language novels and grossly underrepresents female authors), at the time it was the best resource I had found. I might go so far as to say it was the inspiration that got me back into reading novels, after the first couple years of college had stripped me of the energy to read anything that was not assigned.

I immediately began reading books that I'd only barely heard of before, like Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King; the latter is now one of my favorite books. In the years since, I've greatly expanded my reading list, largely on the basis of The New Lifetime Reading Plan, so my progress through the Modern Library List has slowed. But I still have quite a few books from that list on my shelf, and last week I picked up #22, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra.

Unbeknowst to me at the time, O'Hara's book is apparently one of the most controversial selections on the Modern Library list:

[W]riting in the Atlantic Monthly in March, 2000, critic Benjamin Schwarz and writer Christina Schwarz claimed: "So widespread is the literary world's scorn for John O'Hara that the inclusion... of Appointment in Samarra on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best [English-language] novels of the twentieth century was used to ridicule the entire project."

I'm not sure that its inclusion itself merits such ridicule, but certainly it's placement at #22, ahead of books like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, is one of the list's many flaws.

Though overrated on the Modern Library list, the book has its strengths. Experiencing the slow boil of Julian English, particularly in his drunken internal monologues, is a bit like finally getting inside the head of one of Raymond Carver's alcoholics. There is a sad, unexplained inevitability to English's self-destruction, but O'Hara subtly avoids showing the worst of it until late in the book.

Until then, we see the build-up of English's discontent, but the narration quickly cuts away before the release, and we are left to hear about it from other characters or through English's reminiscences. The latter are brought up in English's confrontations with his unhappy wife, Caroline, some of the most powerful passages in the book. It becomes increasingly clear that English is not just losing control of himself, but is losing his sense of himself, and this dislocation is the driving force in his downfall.

Perhaps it is merely the proximity of my own reading of Carver that has me drawing parallels, but the shared subject matter of alcoholism and broken marriages seems enough to invite some comparison. Carver's minimalism leaves much unspoken just below the surface, while O'Hara dives forcefully into English's psyche. Yet for all that, English's self-destruction is no more explicable, and the reader is left to sort out why and how a man can so completely unravel in three short days.

Mildly recommended for fans of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other purveyors of alcohol lit in the early twentieth century.

Pollen in Georgia

Pollen has invaded Georgia over the past few weeks, and it has made itself known not just through a massive outbreak of allergy attacks, but by coating everyone's car with a golden-yellow sheen:

A yellow haze of pollen descended on the Southeast in the past week, coating cars and porch furniture and making people miserable in one of the worst allergy seasons in years.

"Everybody who walks through the door, you can see it in their faces," said Atlanta, Georgia, pharmacy owner Ira Katz, who is running low on medication to treat what he said is the worst allergy season of his 26 years in the business.

Atlanta's pollen count hit 5,499 particles per cubic meter of air Monday, the highest so far this season and the fourth highest in the 12 years that the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic has been keeping records. In South Carolina, the pollen count hit 4,862, according to the Allergic Disease and Asthma Center in Greenville.

The yellow dust -- which is coming mostly from pine trees -- is proving to be a gold mine for car washes, even though some are offering free repeat washes for cars that get covered again within 48 hours.

The dust created such a thick coat on my black car that my soldiers found it amusing to write "Wash Me" with their fingers all over the hood. I finally broke down and obliged on Wednesday, and already the car is covered again. It is finally looking a bit like rain, at long last, so hopefully the long pollen nightmare will soon be over. More likely, it seems, the clouds are just here to taunt us further.

Harvard Admissions

Gaining admission to Harvard just gets harder and harder, and I can say from my own experience as an interviewer in this year's admissions process that there is no doubt thousands of stellar applicants were turned aside:

Getting into Harvard University got tougher in 2007 as more students than ever applied to the Ivy League school's undergraduate program, many drawn by an attractive financial aid offer.

Harvard, the world's richest university, said Thursday a record 22,955 students applied for a spot in the Class of 2011. Of those, just 2,058 were accepted -- an admission rate of 9 percent, the lowest in school history.

All I know is that I am glad I was an applicant in the spring of 1998 and not the spring of 2007. That said, this line from the story makes little sense:

Harvard and other prestigious U.S. universities are benefiting from a surge in enrollment as children of the baby-boomer generation graduate from high school.

I don't know about other universities, but Harvard is not benefiting from a "surge in enrollment." Enrollment continues to hold steady at 1600-1700 students per year for an undergraduate enrollment of ~6500. There has perhaps been an increase in applications, which is partially responsible for the continuing decline in the overall admissions rate, but I don't think this represents an overall increase in the quality of the applicant pool. It is simply a numerical increase due to population growth. The country just keeps getting bigger, while Harvard has not (and apparently will not).

The other major factor in the admissions rate is the expected "yield," which is the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll. As Harvard's yield has risen to nearly 80%, the school only has to make ~2000 admission offers to fill its student body. That has as much to do with the admissions rate as the number of applicants.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

morrison_beloved.jpgDespite the best efforts of my 12th grade English teacher, at 17 years of age I could not, or would not, appreciate the beauty, wisdom, and insight of works by a number of female African-American authors. Perhaps it was my teenage naïveté, or just plain stubborness, but I read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison's Beloved feeling rather defensive as a white male, as if the purpose of the texts was to paint as bad a picture of men, and especially white men, as possible.

Well that was pure stupid silliness, plain and simple. Embarrassing at best, but shameful seems more apt. Having re-read each of those books in the past several months, I can now see the pain, the repression, and the reaction that each book narrates. I can see the elements of the books that are universally human and the elements which are unique to African-American women in the South. More importantly, I can now appreciate and learn from those unique elements, and recognize the vital contribution that Hurston and Morrison have made.

Having just finished Beloved a few days ago, the power of the story lingers on in my thoughts. On the most universal level, it is a story about love and loss, the various ways to react to inexplicable tragedy, the power of family and community, and the shaping and re-shaping of self-concept.

Yet Morrison's story can not be separated from its time, the years immediately before, during, and after the Civil War. It can not be separated from its place, northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, the battleground between heaven and hell in the era of slavery. And it can not be separated from its characters, ex-slaves still traumatized by the power and proximity (in time and place) of their bondage.

Morrison's great triumph is in telling a story that touches the universal without sacrificing or short-changing a story unique to slaves. I believe Morrison has said that part of the purpose of the book was to give voice to those whose voice was taken away, or never recorded, and in this she has succeeded. In Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Denver, she has given three generations of African-American women a voice that is undoubtedly human, but undoubtedly their own.

The other aspect of Morrison's novel that gave me fits as a teenager, but now inspires admiration, is the challenging structure and style. While I might still rave about the spare simplicity of Raymond Carver's work, I am no longer allergic to literature that is challenging in its construction as well as its content. Morrison's use of flashbacks, alternating narrators and perspective, and stream of consciousness is not mere experiment or flash, it adds substantively to the work, makes it possible to convey feelings, visions, and the biases of multiple perspectives that could not be otherwise conveyed. Her structure, her style are indispensable to the success of the novel.

An essential book for readers of fiction.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

philbrick_mayflower.jpgIf Jamestown wants to be as famous as Plymouth, a top priority ought to be finding better authors to write about the place. While James Horn's A Land As God Made It was servicable at best, Nathaniel Philbrick has added another solid entry to his growing library of sea-related titles with his latest book, Mayflower.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the two books, and one of the latter's greatest strengths, is that Philbrick takes his history from the initial gatherings of Separatists in England all the way through the conclusion of King Philip's War. Perhaps the chronology simply lends itself better to a narrative arc than the Jamestown story, but where Horn's book abruptly ends with the dissolution of the Virginia Company, Philbrick gives a full view of how the Pilgrims' settlement fit into the full seventeenth-century history of the New England colonies:

[T]he story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving. When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex.

It becomes clear from the first encounters with Massasoit that peace between the colonists and the Wampanoag was heavily contingent on the personalities involved, and it is no surprise when the tensions that lurked throughout the text boil over into open warfare after Massasoit's death. While Philbrick does not describe the war as inevitable, his examination of internal machinations of both the English and the Native Americans makes clear that peaceful coexistence was fragile from the start.

In particular, the portrait he paints of Massasoit, his son, Metacomet (Philip), and other leaders suggests sophisticated political, diplomatic, and military thinking on the part of the Native Americans, who could see the growing threat of colonialism and reacted accordingly. Their choices were not without flaws: their growing dependence on military resources that only Europeans could provide (guns and ammunition) gave the British an advantage when war broke out. Philbrick suggests, however, that but for the Mohawk alliance with the British, the natives might have secured the support of the French and won that war, a remarkable counter-factual. Of course, disunity between native tribes would prove to be a major enabling factor in their slaughter at the hands of Europeans and Americans for two centuries thereafter.

While Mayflower is a decidedly popular history (with a decidedly misleading name, since the transatlantic voyage only takes up 10 pages of the book), it defies the common defects of the genre, with analysis that digs at least a few inches beneath the surface and a solid 80 pages of notes and biblography. Philbrick has a pleasant if unspectacular style, a few notches above staid academics but not the equal of McCullough or Ellis.

Recommended for fans of Philbrick's other books and those interested in colonial New England history.

Two Biographies

Not that I don't already have enough biographies to read, but there are two on the horizon which have me salivating: Walter Isaacson's Einstein and Jean Edward Smith's FDR. Here is the blurb for Isaacson's latest:

einstein.jpg

How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson's biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom.

Based on newly released personal letters of Einstein, this book explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk -- a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn't get a teaching job or a doctorate -- became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe. His success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals.

Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin was quite good. Not as sophisticated as the treatments by Edmund Morgan and Gordon Wood, not as thorough as that by H.W. Brands, but a stellar introduction to the founding grandfather. Einstein deserves the same and I look forward to this book. As for the FDR blurb:

roosevelt.jpg

Summing up Roosevelt's legacy, Jean Smith declares that FDR, more than any other individual, changed the relationship between the American people and their government. It was Roosevelt who revolutionized the art of campaigning and used the burgeoning mass media to garner public support and allay fears. But more important, Smith gives us the clearest picture yet of how this quintessential Knickerbocker aristocrat, a man who never had to depend on a paycheck, became the common man's president. The result is a powerful account that adds fresh perspectives and draws profound conclusions about a man whose story is widely known but far less well understood. Written for the general reader and scholars alike, FDR is a stunning biography in every way worthy of its subject.

I have not read Smith's John Marshall or Grant, so I do not know whether to expect much. I have been a bit hesistant to read Conrad Black's FDR, though it got great reviews and currently sits on my shelf. Considering Black's current criminal trial, it seems distasteful to read a book on such a great man by an alleged thief. But perhaps it takes one flawed giant to know another (Black's next book, after all, is supposed to be about Nixon). In any case, I'm hopeful that Smith's one-volume is at least servicable. We shall see.

(Hat tip: The Millions)

Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver

carver_where.jpgFor many years, Robert Coles taught a class at Harvard called General Education 105, "The Literature of Social Reflection." It was widely and accurately perceived as a gut course, wherein the students read great books and then proceeded to sit around and talk about how the books made us feel. This was the course description:

An examination of selected novels, essays, poems, and autobiographical statements which aim at social scrutiny or at a moral critique of a particular society. Lectures emphasize the distinctive approach of the literary mind to a variety of social problems: poverty, racial injustice, historical change, the various tensions of rural and urban life. Authors studied include...

In fact, the authors studied varied amongst the small sections. While Dr. Coles gave the lectures, there were also weekly meetings in small groups led by a teaching assistant (TA), usually one of Dr. Coles' graduate students, and the TA's supplemented the skeletal required reading list with their own choices from a master list selected by Dr. Coles. My TA, who became a good friend, was particularly fond of Raymond Carver, and we were assigned to read several stories from Where I'm Calling From and several poems from A New Path to the Waterfall.

My performance in the class reflected the fact that I was it was fall of my senior year. In addition to senioritis, I was knee-deep in applications to law school, and had yet to decide whether to actually go to law school rather than immediately enter active duty as an Army tank officer. So I may have skipped a bit of the reading here and there.

While I missed out on some great reading at the time, I did not miss the point that this was important, moving literature. Our small sections were some of my favorite hours spent at Harvard, listening to other students' reactions to the books, as well as reflections on their own life stories. I have kept James Agee, Flannery O'Connor, William Carlos Williams and others on my reading list ever since.

High on that list was Carver's Where I'm Calling From. I'm a bit ashamed it took me five years to finally get around to it, but it was well worth the wait. Carver's reputation for minimalism is well-earned. The characters are utterly unexceptional, and Carver's narrators offer little guidance on what the stories mean or how the characters are to be judged. It is left to us to dig into the sparse prose and pull out deeper meaning.

This, of course, makes Carver's stories a goldmine for a course like Gen Ed 105. Every student brought a different perspective and many had wildly different reactions to the stories. Particularly with Carver's emphasis on broken or breaking families and alcoholism, those readers with divorce and/or alcoholism in their lives saw things quite differently from those of us spared such trauma.

Point being, what I loved about reading Carver was that I felt truly engaged by the work, without being made to feel stupid or tricked by an overly complicated literary style. It was the sparse simplicty itself that forced me, as the reader, to make my own judgments and grapple with the ambiguities and complexities of ordinary life.

Highly recommended for all lovers of thoughtful modern fiction.

Peyton Manning - SNL

While I will, of course, forever hate Peyton Manning for defeating my beloved Bears in the Super Bowl (though another quarterback probably deserves the credit/blame), due props for this hilarious appearance on Saturday Night Live:

Teaching children to do bad things is inherently funny. Peyton Manning teaching children to do bad things is that much better. Also, love the swearing.

Let Briggs Go?

briggs.jpgLance Briggs has burned his bridges in Chicago. I see little or no way for him to play for the team again, nor do I want him to. Unfortunately, he and his uber-ass agent Drew Rosenhaus have so terribly misplayed their hand that Briggs has come across as a Terrell Owens-like petulant child.

Make no mistake, Briggs had a chance to come across as the victim in this situation, no matter how crazy it is that a 26-year old man (my age!) could be upset at making $7.2 million this year. After the awful PR that the Bears management received for their stone-walling of Lovie Smith, and with a decades-old reputation for being cheap, the Bears could have easily been portrayed as mistreating a loyal defensive playmaker who has played hard despite being terribly underpaid ($400k a year) and operating in the shadow of fan-favorite Brian Urlacher.

Yet Rosenhaus and Briggs managed to turn the whole thing around, alienate everyone inside Chicago and out, and come across as the bad guys. At long last, another team appears stupid enough to try and take Briggs off our hands. The gullible sap, willing to overpay for a petulant free agent? Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins, of course:

Drew Rosenhaus, the agent for Bears' disgruntled Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, told FOXSports.com that the Redskins informed him Monday that they would like to swing a deal that would send Washington's first-round pick, No. 6 overall, to Chicago for the Bears' first-rounder, No. 31, and Briggs.

When asked about such an offer Redskins owner Dan Snyder confirmed to FOXSports.com that he in fact wanted to make the move and they were waiting to talk to Chicago.

I have mixed feelings on this offer. On the one hand, we get rid of Briggs. We send him to a team that doesn't really need him (check out profootballtalk.com for why), so he'll probably be exposed for the Urlacher-dependent player he is. We get the chance to draft a potential star of the future with a high first-round pick.

On the other hand, I don't think it is enough. I'd like to see the Redskins throw in a third or fourth-round pick, especially with Angelo's recent success with mid-round picks. And the problem with high first-round picks is that you have to pay them like high first-round picks, with no guarantee of success.

Briggs is a known commodity, and if we could make him a part of our team again, it would be better. But if that's off the table, and it seems to be, then the Bears have to make the most of it. I say hold out for a mid-round pick. Otherwise, let Briggs sit out the season, franchise him again, make him sit out another season, and let Rosenhaus and Briggs suffer the consequences of their stupidity.

UPDATE: You've got to love sports fans. While I and other Bears' fans adamantly demand more compensation for Briggs, Redskins' fans are just as adamant that their team get more than just our first round pick in addition to Briggs. Hilarious.

A Land As God Made It - James Horn

horn_land.jpgIn his recent book, A Land As God Made It, James Horn attempts to reestablish the primacy of the Jamestown settlement as the true birth place of America, fighting back the Puritan Pilgrims whose Thanksgiving tale has risen to dominance in popular legend (which Horn attributes to pro-New England sentiment in a post-revolutionary world). Horn's text lacks much of the nuance that made Alan Taylor's American Colonies such a superb read. But Horn does well enough to bring to life the natives whose alternating cooperation and hostility largely controlled the fate of the colony.

Horn also does well in his main aim to restore some of the luster of Jamestown that has been lost through historical memory of the colony as a miserable failure. In many, perhaps most ways, it was a failure. Unbelievable percentages of people died, as many as 5 out of 6 of the first several thousand colonists. Relations with Native Americans, originally intended to center on Christian conversion, devolved to bitter violence. It took years to finally discover tobacco as a potential cash crop, and even this was not enough to prevent the dissolution of the Virginia Company. But, as Horn points out, Virginia succeeded anyway. The path blazed by the early colonists was taken up by the crown and, as we know with hindsight, Virginia emerges as a key colony for (and then against) England.

Where Horn disappoints, surprisingly enough, is in his treatment of the English. If his book was intended to set the record straight about Jamestown's true place in American history, it is a bit confusing that he spends so much time talking about John Smith. While Smith is undoubtedly a pivotal character, popular legend already focuses almost exclusively on Smith and Pocahantas, to the detriment of the larger story.

Horn seems to fall into this trap as well, spending so much time on Smith and his adventures that I was shocked halfway through the book to find that Smith had spent a mere 30 months in Virginia before being injured and shipped back to England. Smith is a larger-than-life character, and his actions make for excellent story-telling. But that is why he is already famous. More important, at least to this reader, are the actions of those that accompanied Smith, opposed him, and succeeded him.

While many of these men make their way into the narrative, such as John Ratcliffe, John Rolfe, and George Somers, they all seem like mere supporting actors in a tale about Smith. Even after Smith is back in England and entirely disconnected from the Jamestown narrative, Horn continues to track Smith. While Smith's authorship of books about the New World were undoubtedly important to contemporary and historical knowledge about Virginia, it seems disproportionate in such a slender volume to give Smith so much ink.

Not recommended. For colonial completists only.