Palin

Say what you want about John McCain, but he's certainly not afraid of taking a risk. How else to describe a 72-year old cancer survivor choosing as his candidate for vice president an unknown first-term governor who thinks victims of rape and incest should be forced to carry pregnancies to term, supports the teaching of creationism in public schools, doesn't think global warming is caused by humans, withholds emails to obstruct an ethics investigation, and supported Pat Buchanan's bid for President?

And this is supposed to appeal to those who shed sweat and tears in support of Hillary Clinton? I think not. But maybe McCain didn't really know what he was getting:

John McCain today announced a running mate whom he met only six months ago and whom he spoke with just once on the phone about the position before offering it in person earlier this week.

It is said that the choice of running mate is the first "presidential" decision a candidate has to make, and that the real litmus test is whether that running mate is qualified to assume the presidency in a tragedy or crisis. In this, John McCain has utterly failed. More than any of the negative campaigning or flip-flopping he has done to this point, his choice today makes apparent that John McCain is concerned about only one thing: Election Day. He does not care one bit about the day after that, about what it would mean to actually govern, and he is certainly not, as they say, putting the country first.

The American Plague by Molly Crosby

crosby_american.jpgAccounts of mankind's endless effort to combat disease are fascinating to me. A good medical history weaves together the scientific discovery of the illness, the social history of its effect on humanity, and the biography of the men and women who devote their lives to fighting it. Several months ago I read David Oshinsky's Polio, which traces the race to a vaccine between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, and enjoyed it greatly.

In The American Plague, Molly Crosby traces the history of another viral disease, yellow fever. Though little known by most Americans today, this is a disease with symptoms horrific enough to match anything else nature has thrown at us:

It hit suddenly in the form of a piercing headache and painful sensitivity to light, like looking into a white sun. At that point, the patient could still hope that it was not yellow fever, maybe just a headache from the heart. But the pain worsened, crippling movement and burning the skin. The fever rose to 104, maybe 105 degrees, and bones felt as though they had been cracked. The kidneys stopped functioning, poisoning the body. Abdominal cramps began in the final days of illness as the patient vomited black blood brought on my internal hemorrhaging. The victim became a palate of hideous color: Red blood ran from the gums, eyes and nose. The tongue swelled, turning purple. Black vomit roiled. And the skin grew a deep gold, the whites of the eyes turning brilliant yellow.

It doesn't get much nastier than that. Crosby devotes the early chapters of the book to one of the largest modern outbreaks of yellow fever, the 1878 epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee:

The city collapsed, hemorrhaging its population, its income, its viability. Trains pulled away, leaving people weeping beside the tracks, their last chance at escape gone as the final train cars rolled to a start. A morbid calmness fell over Memphis, so still and quiet as to be serene if one didn't know it was simply the pallor of death. In July of that year, the city boasted a population of 47,000. By September, 19,000 remained and 17,000 of them had yellow fever.

Crosby then shifts her focus to Cuba, twenty years later, and the bulk of the remaining pages are devoted to the efforts led by Army doctor Walter Reed to isolate the causes of yellow fever. The disease had hit the American military hard during the Spanish-American War, and Reed was dispatched to Cuba to lead a team to investigate the disease.

As Walter Reed's group began to narrow their focus to the mosquito as a likely vector for the disease, they needed experimental data to support this hypothesis. It had been twenty years since Dr. Carlos Finlay was widely mocked for his mosquito theory, and in the interim a bacterial theory of yellow fever had gained support. Crosby devotes a short chapter to vivisection, human experimentation, and the antivivisectionist movement, and later provides some context about the young men, mostly soldiers, who answered the Yellow Fever Commission's call for volunteers:

In modern times, it's hard to understand the mentality that would lead a soldier into knowingly risking his life for the purpose of medicine. Soldiers are trained to fight and defend; if any illness befalls them, it's considered a cruel and unjust turn of events. But prior to World War II and the introduction of penicillin, soldiers lost their loves to disease far more than bullets. From the time of the American Revolution through World War I, a soldier knew his odds of dying from dysentery, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, influenza, or yellow fever were greater than those on the battlefield, so volunteering for human experiments might not seem as much of a psychological departure as it would today. After all, a soldier's duty is to defense, and many men felt that the greatest threat to the American people lay not in enemy warships or troops, but in disease.

In the Commission's work, there were two parallel experiments. The first was to prove that mosquitoes were the carriers of yellow fever; the second was to prove that simple, unsanitary filth could not spread the disease. The latter would end once and for all the bacterial theory. The first experiment involved, obviously enough, having infected mosquitoes bite the volunteers. The circumstances under which the second experiment was conducted, though posing no risk of a yellow fever infection to the volunteers (or so Reed correctly believed), was immensely unpleasant in its own right:

A single stove stood in the one-room house, and it kept the temperature inside somewhere between 90 and 100 degrees at all times. Impenetrable to light or air, the small room felt like a furnace. The three men began breaking open the crates and boxes left in the center of the room. As they opened the first trunk, the odor was so pungent that the men ran outdoors, hands over their mouths, to keep from retching. After a few minutes, the three men returned and finished unpacking boxes full of soiled sheets, covered in vomit, sweat and feces from the yellow fever ward. They dressed in the filthy clothing that had been worn by dying patients, they covered their cots in sheets stained with black vomit, and then they spent the next twenty nights the same way.

This horrific experience was endured by multiple trios, but not a single one ever developed yellow fever, providing "irrefutable proof that yellow fever could not be transmitted by 'germs,' infected clothing or air." When the mosquito trials succeeded in infecting numerous volunteers (and killing Jesse Lazear, one of Reed's three colleagues on the Commission), the riddle was solved.

Crosby devotes the last section of the book to the century since Walter Reed's efforts. The good news includes the development of a vaccine. The bad news is that the vaccine is no longer included in many vaccine schedules, and the World Health Organization estimates that 30,000 per year still die from the disease in Africa and South America, and the rest of the world "must still be considered at risk for yellow fever epidemics."

The problem with The American Plague is it is not the book Crosby really wanted to write. A resident of Memphis, it is apparent that the local history explored in the first chunk of the book is her true passion. She goes into great detail about city life, and the doctor, nurses, and citizens who lived and died during the 1878 epidemic. Even the verbose subtitle of the book highlights "the epidemic that shaped our history."

As a result, the subsequent shift to Cuba is jarring. Her take on the Yellow Fever Commission's operation is really just a series of short biographies strung into a narrative. Like she does in the Memphis section, Crosby spends far more time on the people than the disease, and there is no significant effort to explore the scientific and medical underpinnings of the Commission's efforts. The final section, which purports to takes the story to the present day, is a mere 25 pages. Barely five pages are devoted to the development of the vaccine, a few references to the continuing presence of yellow fever in Africa and South America, and then, you guessed it, an epilogue that returns to Memphis for a discussion of the long-term effects on that city.

Crosby has written an excellent long article on the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, with a shallow hundred page detour to Cuba tacked on to pad the page length. The narrative is breezy, and the details about Memphis are legitimately interesting, but those seeking a serious scientific history of yellow fever will want to look elsewhere.

Crescent & Star by Stephen Kinzer

kinzer_crescent.jpgStanding as it does at the crossroads of continents, Anatolia has been witness to the rise and fall of many of the world's great empires: the Akkadians, the Achaemenid Persians, the Greeks of Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, and finally the Ottoman Turks. Despite Anatolia's strong historical ties to the Greek world (it was the birthplace of Homer and Herodotus), the long reign of the Ottoman Empire turned the region away from Europe, and the area suffered under the long stagnation of Ottoman rule, ending only with the dissolution and partitioning of the empire after World War I. A Turkish nationalist movement rose in opposition to the partitioning of Anatolia itself, and was led to victory in the Turkish War of Independence by a military officer named Mustafa Kemal, who would eventually take the surname Atatürk, father of the Turks.

After founding the Turkish Republic, Atatürk served as president for fifteen years. He embarked on a full scale reform of the state based on an Enlightenment-based ideology that promoted secularism, modernity, and democracy. He abolished the Ottoman caliphate, granted women full political rights, and replaced religious law with secular penal and civil codes.

Three-quarters of a century later, Atatürk's ideology still serves as the foundation for Turkish political life, and he himself is worshiped as a near-deity. In 2001 (less than two weeks after 9/11), Stephen Kinzer published Crescent & Star, an exploration of how Atatürk's ideology has been implemented by his successors. After five years as The New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, Kinzer reports that while the Turkish people have made tremendous progress, their leaders have not kept pace:

If Atatürk could return to see what has become of his nation, he undoubtedly would be astonished at how far it has come. Muddy villages have become bustling cities and cow paths have become superhighways... People are educated, self-confident and eager to build a nation that embodies the ideals of democracy and human rights.

The ruling elite, however, refuses to embrace this new nation or even admit it exists. Military commanders, prosecutors, security officers, narrow-minded bureaucrats, lapdog newspaper editors, rigidly conservative politicians and other members of this sclerotic cadre remain psychologically trapped in the 1920s... They not only ignore but actively resist intensifying pressure from educated, worldly Turks who want their country to break free of its shackles and complete its march toward the democracy that was Atatürk's dream.

This is the thesis of Kinzer's short book, which mixes equal parts first-person journalism with more traditional historical analysis, and Kinzer repeats it ad nauseam. If the elites will fully embrace Western-style democracy, Kinzer insists, "Turkey will astonish the world by becoming the most audaciously successful nation of the twenty-first century." Unfortunately, the depth of his analysis does not support this prescription.

Kinzer does best when fulfilling his natural role as journalist, particularly in the brief interludes he calls meze (after the Turkish small dish). In these pages, Kinzer provides the flavor and scent of modern Turkey, reporting on the drinking cafes called meyhane, the archaeological excavations of Troy , and his own brief imprisonment after encountering an army roadblock while on assignment in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey:

Despite my growing concern, I could not help smiling when I saw that two lines of soldiers, a total of twenty-four men, had been assembled to oversee my arrival. Never had any military body taken me so seriously.

Under the watchful eyes of these recruits, I was brought down a set of steps to the subterranean jail. I knew that because I was a foreigner, nothing too serious would happen to me. Nonetheless, while descending that concrete staircase I could not help thinking of the many unfortunate Kurds, guilty and innocent, who must have been dragged down here on their way to brutal abuse.

The book also serves as a basic introduction to the major issues in modern Turkish history: the struggle between secularism and Islam, the Kurdish question, the official denial of the Armenian genocide, the tensions with Greece, and the 1999 earthquake. Unfortunately, on each of these topics you will have to take Kinzer's word for it. There are no footnotes, endnotes, or even the most basic bibliography. Each subject is, in Kinzer's hands, turned into another example of how the Turkish political leadership has failed. Not to fear, however, Kinzer knows just what to do. The close of each chapter includes some variation of "Turkey must..." or "The state must..." followed by a prescriptive platitude trumpeting the purity of Western-style freedom and democracy.

When faced with the dissonance of admiring a people, but recognizing the tremendous shortcomings of their government, Kinzer chooses simply to assert that the government is detached from their own people. Kinzer blames the flimsy characters that have served as Turkey's political leaders, but not the people who elected them, or the intellectual and cultural elites who might offer themselves as substitutes. He seems to recognize that the various military coups over the years were good things (even the soft coup of 1997), yet simply asserts, with no supporting analysis, that such oversight is no longer necessary.

Kinzer clearly loves Turkey, and the Turkish people. And when he sticks to his first-person accounts of Turkish daily life, it is not hard to see why. Unfortunately, the book's depiction of contemporary issues in Turkey is marred by his distracting and ill-supported condescension. Kinzer's journalistic vignettes are worthwhile, but there must be a better introduction to modern Turkish history.

1948 by Benny Morris

morris_1948.jpgBack in 2006 I read two books on the Arab-Israeli wars: Michael Oren's Six Days of War and Abraham Rabinovich's The Yom Kippur War. Oren's was the superior book, because he succeeded in not just analyzing the military conflict, but in establishing the context for the Six-Day War on two fronts: its place in 1967's global politics, and in Arab-Israeli history.

Integral to an understanding of that history is a familiarity with the 1948 War, which set the stage for everything that happened in the decades since. Though I read and enjoyed Martin Gilbert's Israel as a teenager, my knowledge of Israel's War of Independence has remained rather simplistic: Jews immigrate to Palestine, fight British, British turn the issue over to the United Nations, U.N. plans partition, Israel declares statehood, Arab nations invade, Israel defeats them.

Since so many of the present debates over Israeli/Palestinian issues can be traced back to the events of the late 1940s, most books written about that era exhibit the deep biases of their authors. I have avoided them for that reason. In his new book, 1948, Benny Morris has managed to present a remarkably even-handed account of the conflict.

Morris starts the book with a historical background that traces developments under the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the interwar rule by the British. This era see a dramatic rise in Jewish immigration and the Zionist movement, encouraged by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 suggesting British government support for a Jewish state. Subsequent attempts by the British to appease both their Arab allies and the growing Jewish population only resulted in the Mandate inhabitants taking turns attacking the British. Arab unrest culminated in a massive revolt from 1936-1939. This episode also marked the beginning of a pattern of Arab self-destruction. In response to the violence, the British offered to retract the Balfour declaration, promising a unified Palestinian state within ten years with severely curtailed Jewish immigration; the Palestinian Arabs "maganed to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory" by rejecting this and demanding "full cessation of Jewish immigration, immediate British withdrawal, and immediate independence." Instead, they got nothing out of the three years of violence, except for the near total destruction of their political class:

The Arab Revolt thus ended in unmitigated defeat for the Palestinians Somewhere between three thousand and six thousand of their political and military activists had been killed, with many thousands more either driven into exile or jailed; the leadership of the Palestine Arab national movement was decimated, exiled, or jailed; and a deep chasm, characterized by blood feuds, divided the society's elite families... The Palestinians had also suffered serious economic harm, through both the general strike and British repression. They had prematurely expended their military power against the wrong enemy and had been dealt a mortal blow in advance of the battle with the real enemy, Zionism. The damage to their war effort in 1947-1948 was incalculable.

In contrast, Morris traces the urgent efforts by the Yishuv to prepare for the coming conflict by building workable political, military, and civic institutions, and circumventing limits on immigration and the arms trade. Thus when the Jews escalate their attacks on the British after World War II, "the British cabinet decided to wash its hands of Palestine and dump the problem in the lap of the United Nations." As the British prepare to leave, the Yishuv already has in place the framework of a functioning government. From here, Morris divides the conflict into two main phases: a civil war between Jews and Palestinian Arabs from November 1947 (after the U.N. approved its partition plan) until May 1948 (when the British Mandate ended), and the international conflict which began with the Pan-Arab invasion on 15 May 1948.

Morris lays out the self-interested nature of the Arab nations that invaded after the British withdrawal. The Jordanians had particularly grand ambitions. Rather than even pretend to take up the cause of Palestinian statehood, Jordan had sought to simply substitute themselves and expand their territory through secret negotiations with the Yishuv:

[W]hen partion reemerged at the end of [World War II] as a possible solution to the Palestine conundrum, Abdullah... saw his chance. Of course, he sought a partition not between the Jews and the Palestine Arabs, but between the Jews and himself... The Palestine Arabs, crushed by Britian in 1936-39 and still weak, could be ignored. Palestine or parts of it could be fused with Transjordan--if only there was agreement with Britian and the Jews, respectively Abdullah's political-military patron and his powerful neighbors.

Though no agreement was reached, this ambition informed Abdullah's war goals, and explain why he aimed to merely occupy the portions of the Arab-occupied West Bank that his troops would take with little resistance after crossing the Jordan. The other Arab states took note of this selfish move and adjusted their war plans accordingly. This universal self-interest would prevent any semblance of a unified strategy between the Arab forces:

[I]n the days before and after 15 May the war plan had changed in essence from a united effort to conquer large parts of the nascent Jewish state, and perhaps destroy it, into an uncoordinated multilateral land grab. As a collective, the Arab states still wished and hoped to destroy Israel--and, had their armies encountered no serious resistance, would, without doubt, have proceeded to take all of Palestine, including Tel Aviv and Haifa. But, in the circumstances, their invasion now aimed at seriously injuring the Yishuv and conquering some of its territory while occupying all or most of the areas earmarked for Palestinian Arab statehood.

Although the Arab leaders vaguely alluded to a duty to "save the Palestinians," none of them seriously contemplated the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state... all, to one degree or another, care little about Palestinian goals, their rhetoric notwithstanding.

This would set the stage for six decades of Arab monarchs and dictators using the Palestinians as a rallying cry to further their own interests and distract their citizens from focusing their anger on internal issues. Contrast this with the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews displaced from Arab nations (from Morocco to Iraq) by violence after 1947:

Israel's leaders, already in 1948, by way of rebuffing Arab efforts to achieve repatriation of the Palestinian refugees, pointed out that what had taken place was a double exodus, or an unplanned "exchange of population," more or less of equal numbers, with a similar massive loss of property affecting both the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish refugees... The Jewish refugee problem quickly disappeared as Israel absorbed them; the Palestinian refugee problem persisted (and persists), as the Arab states largely failed to absorb their refugees, leaving many of them stateless and languishing in refugee camps and living on international charity.

Unfortunately, Morris' anaylsis of political history and its effect on the war grows shallow and infrequent as the book progresses. Once the Arab invasion begins, Morris' recitation of military encounters is both exhaustive and exhausting, taking up better than 200 pages for six months of fighting. There are so many raids and battles, so many hills and villages, so many battalions and brigades that it becomes nearly impossible to digest. The maps are either too focused or too broad, and thus unable to convey both the tactical and the strategic progress of the war.

Morris devotes insufficient attention to the larger political machinations at work, whether on the global stage, or at the regional level. His narrative occasionally hints at these issues, such as the start of the Cold War, the tensions between Britain and America, and the inter-Arab rivalries (where were the Saudis?). But they are only mentioned when they happen to interrupt the flow of military events, like when the threat of British intervention prevents Israel from cutting off the remaining Egyptian troops in the Gaza Strip.

Morris certainly provided a detailed examination of the military aspects of the conflict. He is to be congratulated on the balanced portrait he provides of Israeli and Arab behavior in the war; even in the discussion of wartime atrocities, or the expulsion of refugees, he provides a sober and sympathetic analysis that incorporates each side's perspective. He simply missed an opportunity to apply his even-handed approach to the bigger picture.

Obama Biden

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Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

ferris_then.jpgFirst there was Dilbert; then Office Space; then The Office. It seems that the recent boom in office-related entertainment has grown independently of (or perhaps inversely proportional to) the growth of the American economy. Early last year, Joshua Ferris claimed a place for himself in this niche with his debut novel, Then We Came to the End.

The book centers on the working lives of the employees at a Chicago advertising agency in the aftermath the dot-com bust. From what I can tell, Ferris has done a superb job portraying the modern American workplace, from the nitpicking over office furniture to the rumor mongering to the internecine feuds:

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently.

It is true, as my wife pointed out to me, that I have never experienced life in an office quite like this, having gone straight from college to law school. By contrast, she spent three years as a paralegal before going to law school. When I was briefly at a law firm, it was a feast year; and now that we have hit a relative famine year, I have the security of government employment. Still, Ferris' depiction just has the aura of truth.

Much has been made about the novel's point of view, as it is written in first person plural. Though it gets clunky a few times, I was surprised just how well Ferris pulled it off. It is perfectly suited to the setting of the book: the employees' collective fortunes rise and fall on the success of the firm, individual opinions and rumors quickly become shared wisdom. There is added irony in that this is an advertising agency, which ostensibly prides itself on the creativity of the individuals who work there. As the economic slump continues, even the termination of individuals is viewed through the collective lens:

On the drive home we puzzled over who was next. Scott McMichaels was next. His wife just had a baby. Sharon Turner was next. She and her husband had just purchased a house. Names -- just names to anyone else, but to us they were the individuals who generated our greatest sympathy. The ones who put their things in a box, shook a few hands, and left without complaint. They had no choice in the matter, and they possessed a quiet resignation to their ill-timed fates. As they departed, it almost felt to us like self-sacrifice. They left, so that we might stay. And stay we did, though our hearts went out to them. Then there was Tom Mota, who wanted to throw his computer against the window.

This is often a very funny book. There were at least three or four times I audibly laughed, a relatively rare feat for literary fiction. I could probably name on one hand the number of authors who've written a novel that made me laugh out loud. Let's see: Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby... okay, two hands. There are also some touchingly poignant moments as well, mostly involving Lynn Morgan, the boss who may or may not have breast cancer, and Janine Gorjanc, whose young daughter was recently murdered:

It was obviously a tragic thing. We knew about it, but how could we possibly know the first thing about it? Some of us discussed the matter to break up the routine, but most of us used the information to explain why she was quiet at lunch. Then we filed the incident away. That is, until Janine started bringing pictures of Jessica into the office and placing them on the credenza and the bookshelves and hanging them from the walls. The pictures crowded in, elbowing each other for room. A hundred pictures of her dead daughter in the seventy-five square feet of her office. The three on the wall facing her were the most mournful things we'd ever seen. It was also downright creepy. It got to the point where we tried to avoid entering her office. When we were forced to, for some pressing item of business, we never knew where to rest our eyes.

But for all the poignant moments, all the comedy, all the success in conveying a slow burning existential despair, Ferris doesn't really go anywhere with it. And that is what delineates a good novel, which is this undoubtedly is, from a great novel, which it is not. Ferris has spend so much effort building his ship, but he doesn't seem to know where to sail it. At the end, when he flashes forward five years into the future, most of the subplots have been tied up with neat little bows. There's too much of a sense that Ferris is suggesting it was the office itself that was causing the existential crises, thus the happy endings for so many who have left. I suppose that is possible, but our collective frustration with work is more likely a symptom, not a cause, of systematic flaws in our societal values.

Banana Nut Bread Recipe

When I first started baking in law school, I liked to make things that could easily be served at school for my classmates. While quick breads are easy to transport, they are not so easy to serve; you need a knife, plates, etc. This was too bad, because quick breads, like brownies, are so easy to make: add ingredients, mix, pour, bake, done. Once I started bringing food to my office, however, it was easy enough to have a stockpile of paper plates and plastic knives handy. And last Christmas, when I decided I would give gift baskets of baked goods to my co-workers, quick breads were a godsend. I could double recipes, fill multiple mini loaf pans, and mass produce deliciousness.

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My wife has an adorable habit of getting really excited about buying bananas at the grocery store, and then casually forgetting them as they hang on the banana tree in our kitchen. Since she refuses to eat them once they have the slightest shade of brown, I have become accustomed to having orphaned overripe bananas in desperate need of a culinary home. I realized long ago that a decent banana bread would be a staple of my baking arsenal.

As usual, I started by searching Allrecipes for their most popular recipe and found this Banana Banana Bread. Based on several of the reviews, I made a few alterations to the basic recipe, adding cinnamon, pecans, and a brown sugar coating on top:

1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
5 mashed bananas
1 cup pecan pieces
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon water

Preheat your oven to 350F. Cream the butter and brown sugar, and then stir in the eggs, bananas, and pecans. For what it's worth, I have found no better tool for mashing bananas then a pair of freshly washed hands. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, and stir just until blended. Be careful not to over stir, or the bread may end up too dry.

Pour the dough into a greased 9x5 inch loaf pan. Mix the 3 tbsp. of brown sugar and the water, then brush the mixture over the top of the dough. Bake for 60 minutes, then cool completely on a wire rack.

The brown sugar/water mixture will give a nice, crisp coating to the top. The pecans are optional, so those with nut allergies can opt out, but I think they perfectly balance the sweetness of the bananas. For those whose wives don't mind walnuts, they would also work well. I have made this at least half a dozen times and it is always popular. Dense, moist, delightful. Enjoy!

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

obrien_things.jpgThere are, in my experience, two types of novels about war. There are the Tom Clancy fictional masturbations on guns and tanks and snipers; these were fodder for my adolescent romanticism about battle. Then there are the attempts to deal with the actual trials of warfare, the death and pain and memory and coping. Because war is at once so meaningful and yet so pointless, so primal and yet so unnatural, some of our best literature has stemmed from the ordeal of combat.

Obvious examples might include Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, four stalwarts of the American high school curriculum. From my own reading, I would add James Jones' The Thin Red Line, Howard Bahr's recent Civil War trilogy starting with The Black Flower, and now Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

O'Brien's masterpiece is in many ways a "post-war story" rather than a "war story," to use his own lexicon. It is clear, even in the early chapters, that the book is being written by someone conveying troubled memories of Vietnam, rather than by an omniscient narrator. Though the first chapter begins with a recitation of the physical "things they carried," it quickly moves to less corporeal burdens:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing -- these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator is still carrying a heavy weight, a burden of memories, and that the telling of these stories is in part an attempt to deal with that millstone. Like all memories, the details shift with each retelling. Over the course of the interconnected vignettes that make up the book, O'Brien drop hints about certain events, only to contradict these when exploring the event in detail in a subsequent chapter. Just when you think the narrator has finally come clean, it becomes clear that there is no underlying commitment to what might be called objective truth, what O'Brien calls "happening-truth."

This is made explicit when O'Brien channels Calvino and seems to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader. In "Notes," in what appears to be his own voice, O'Brien admits the previous chapter was largely invented. There is, of course, no way to discern that this is O'Brien's real voice any more than the rest, which is the point. The previous chapter may be true, the "Notes" chapter may be true, they may both be true. First you have to define truth, and O'Brien is demonstrating the importance of fiction as a method of doing so, of exploring memory and of suitably conveying the combat experience:

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

This is one of the truest explanations for the value and necessity of literature I have read yet. O'Brien is tapping into the value of writing for the writer, a theme he returns to again and again, as when his daughter asks why, at forty-three, he is "still writing war stories." It is a way for him to confront and consider his own past, and an attempt to bring the reader with him. This insight applies not just to stories about war, but to any effort to use fiction to convey a meaningful experience in life to someone who has not shared that experience. The simple recitation of facts is usually not the only way, or even the best way, to share the heart of the matter with the reader, the listener, the viewer.

Thus we don't know if O'Brien really fled to within twenty yards of the Canadian border, like the narrator in "On the Rainy River," or whether this is simply a story that conveys the psychological conflict for many who suddenly found their names atop a draft notice. It doesn't matter. What matters is how personally the reader feels the anguished resignation when, floating out along the empty banks of the river, he chooses not to cross:

I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now.

I did try. It just wasn't possible.

All those eyes on me -- the town, the whole universe -- and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was.

The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.

Interestingly, the last chapter is largely centered on a death that occurs long before Vietnam; the book has no overarching story arc. But neither do most soldiers' experiences in battle; it is exactly this lack of a comprehensible arc that makes coping so difficult in the aftermath. Instead, the stories are threaded together into a continuous meditation on the functions of memory, the purposes and principles of storytelling, and the psychological impact of combat. I am confident O'Brien's work will stand next to that of Remarque and Heller in the annals of great twentieth-century war literature.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

oneill_netherland.jpgMy wife and I share a love for the Booker Prize, and I have slowly but steadily been making my way through the past winners. Seeing as time keeps moving on, I keep falling further behind on this quest. This year, I decided to be a little pro-active. When the longlist was released, I ordered the two books listed as favorites: Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence and Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. With my luck, this practically guarantees a dark horse victory. But Netherland has also received widespread praise received from critics as diverse as Michiko Kakutani and James Wood, so it seemed worth reading anyhow. Despite this broad (though not unanimous) praise, Netherland is notable most for its unfulfilled potential.

The story has a way of appearing exotic no matter the reader. For Americans, it's probably cricket, a sport utterly unintelligible to most of us (O'Neill does little to remedy this). For the Brits who do know cricket, it's likely the immigrant streets of Brooklyn. For those born and raised in Holland and then transplanted to New York via London with a wife and child in tow only to find refuge in the subterranean immigrant cricket community... the setting might seem familiar.

The book carries an overwhelming sense of displacement. This is personified in the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, who is an immigrant twice-over. Dutch born and raised, he moved to New York after starting a career as a financial analyst in London and marrying an English lawyer. His wife, Rachel, was the catalyst for the trans-Atlantic move, but in the wake of 9/11 she took their young son and returned to England. In her absence, Hans discovers a cricket league and rekindles his youthful sporting passion. Cricket serves as a further venue for Hans' displacement, as he refuses to modify his style for the limitations of the New World field:

There was nothing, in principle, to stop me from changing my game, from taking up the cow-shots and lofted bashes in which many of my teammates specialized. But it was, I felt, different for them... They could, and did, modify their batting without spiritual upheaval. I could not.

As the book starts, it is 2006. Hans is reunited with his wife in England. The murdered body of his friend Chuck Ramkissoon has just been found in a New York canal. The rest of the book centers heavily on the time between Rachel's departure and Hans' return to England, his residence at the Hotel Chelsea and the motley crew of neighbors that surround him, and the arc of his relationship with Ramkissoon.

O'Neill has received numerous plaudits for his riff on Jay Gatsby in the form of Ramkissoon, the Trinidadian entrepreneur/hustler. Certainly, there is something to be admired in the attempt to transplant one of literature's most-famous characters from white bread on Long Island to West Indian on Flatbush Avenue. The allusion is sufficiently obvious and self-conscious that it necessarily fails by comparison to the original, but there are worse literary crimes than proving inferior to Fitzgerald. Indeed, Ramkissoon is the best drawn character in the novel, and the time spent in his world are the high points of the story.

It is Hans' marital situation that proves to be Netherland's ultimate undoing. Even James Wood can't help but take note of this misstep, noting that "Rachel's hostility seems a little undeveloped, and one suspects her absence from New York to be merely the necessary fictional trigger for Hans's hospitable sloth." This is classic Wood understatement. The truth is that Rachel's character is a superficial mass of cliches; she retreats from America because it's not safe after 9/11 and Hans failed her in some amorphous, undefined way; she refuses to return because of neocon imperialism:

[S]he told me, in the tone of a person discussing a grocery list, that she had definitely decided not to return to the United States, at least not before the end of the Bush administration or any successor administration similarly intent on a military and economic domination of the world. It was no longer a question of physical security, she said, although that of course remained a factor. It was a question, rather, of not exposing Jake to an upbringing in an "ideologically diseased" country, as she put it, a "mentally ill, sick, unreal" country whose masses and leaders suffered from extraordinary and self-righteous delusions about the United States, the world, and indeed, thanks to the influence of the fanatical evangelical Christian movement, the universe, delusions that had the effect of exempting the United States from the very rules of civilized and lawful and rational behavior it so mercilessly sought to enforce on others.

As a diatribe on the defects of America's recent foreign policy, this is powerful (if hyperbolic) stuff. But as the only explanation for Hans' extended family separation, this is ridiculous. Rachel separates her son from his father, Hans does nothing about it, and this is never justified by any decent exploration of Rachel's motives or Hans' paternal obligations (or his flouting of them). To make matters worse, their inevitable reunion, forecast from page 5, is comically simplistic; after years of living apart, she begins a relationship with another man. Hans moves back to England, they live apart for a year, she moves in with the other man, he jilts her, she gets back together with Hans, suggests marriage counseling, and that's it. I'm really not leaving anything out; this narrative exposition takes just a few paragraphs over several pages.

There is no doubting the intrigue of an entire sporting world existing in the invisible immigrant world of New York City. With O'Neill's international pedigree, and the mystery that cricket remains to America, this is a literary setting worth mining. O'Neill can be forgiven for trying too hard to turn Ramkissoon into a 21st-century Gatsby. But Nick Carraway is seamless as Gatsby's foil; Hans van den Broek's life is an unbelievable construct.

Polk by Walter Borneman

borneman_polk.jpgWhile Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State was not entirely successful as a survey of American foreign policy, his chapter on Manifest Destiny alerted me to an amazing bit of history of which I was previously unaware: President James K. Polk, in just one term, presided over the American territorial expansion into what became Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon, and Washington.

I was aware of the general scope of the expansion, but not the condensed time frame. And I probably could have identified Polk with the Mexican-American War if a game of Trivial Pursuit forced the question. But that is about it for the era between Jackson and Lincoln. With my curiosity piqued, and a 40% off coupon for Borders in my hand, I bought Polk, Walter Borneman's new biography of our eleventh President.

Early last year I read Borneman's The French and Indian War, and found it to be a serviceable but superficial survey of that conflict (for a better short history, try William Fowler's Empires at War). I am happy to report that his latest book is far superior, and is the best short presidential biography I have read.

As Borneman mentions late in the book, Polk's historical reputation in the past fifty years has been rather positive. Each time someone tries to rank the Presidents, Polk falls somewhere between 8th and 14th. Not too shabby when you've got Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson out in front. In evaluating his presidency, I think two things stand out as particularly striking: first, during his first campaign he committed himself to one term, and he stood by that commitment; second, he laid out very explicit goals for that one term, and he achieved them. The self-imposed term limit was in part a political maneuver:

In later years, a pledge by a candidate that he would seek only one term as president would become almost unthinkable, but in 1844, there was both political pressure and precedent to make such a statement. The Whigs had long called for a one-term presidency, not only because it fit Henry Clay's vision of limited executive government but also because it was a rallying cry against the prospects of eight years of another Jackson

William Henry Harrison made the pledge in his inaugural, then promptly died. Polk chose to make the pledge in his letter accepting the Democratic nomination and "[t]hus, in a single paragraph, Polk neatly neutralized Henry Clay and his Whigs on the issue of a one-term presidency." There is no telling how much difference this made, but it is worth noting that Polk essentially won the presidency when a mere 5,000 vote plurality in New York got him its 36 crucial electoral votes. Borneman makes clear that this was not an empty campaign promise for Polk, however:

Indeed, despite Polk's arduous pursuit of the presidency throughout his political career, there is no evidence to suggest that ever contemplated reversing his one-term pledge. As in so many other things, James K. Polk determined a course and stuck with it.

One reason he may not have wavered was that "the four main objectives of his presidency had been realized." And these were not broad, abstract objectives. According to George Bancroft, Polk's contemporary, cabinet member, and future historian, Polk held a meeting shortly after taking the oath of office, and laid out the concrete goals of his presidency:

If Bancroft's memory was correct, Polk "raised his hand high in the air and bringing it down with force on his thigh" confided to Bancroft the "four great measures" of his administration. First, with Texas at last on the road to statehood, the "joint occupation" of Oregon had to be settled with Great Britain. Second, with the flanks of Oregon and Texas secure, the continent must be rounded out by the acquisition of California and "a large district on the coast." Third, the tariff, so onerous to the southern states, must be reduced to a revenue basis, and last, an independent treasury, immune from the banking schemes of recent years, must be established.

He succeeded in each ambition. And while he is most remembered for success in the expansionist foreign policy goals, and the war fought to achieve them, all four achievements stand out as remarkable considering the tremendous party and sectional divides shaking the country. It is fortunate for Polk that he achieved what he wanted within his single term. Pledge or no pledge, his health had deteriorated so much during his presidency that he was to die just 103 days after leaving office, the shortest post-presidency in American history. He would not live to see slavery, an issue underlying much of the domestic political conflict in his own time, tear the country asunder.

While Polk is naturally the focus of the book, Borneman does endeavor to paint a broader picture of the political landscape that preceded and succeeded Polk's rise to power. In so doing, he covers a period of American political history that has remained a mystery to most Americans, myself included. Borneman shares an anecdote about the gaps in his own knowledge that many of us can relate to:

By my third-grade year, my grandfather was tutoring me in the presidents of the United States, as well as the starting lineup of the Cleveland Indians. The presidential list was shorter then -- when you got to Eisenhower, you were finished -- but I had particular trouble with the eight names between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Martin Van Buren was easy enough, and I could remember William Henry Harrison. But who came next?

Patiently, Grandpa repeated the names and had me recite them in a particular cadence: Tyler, Polk, Taylor -- pause -- Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan. It wasn't long before I could rattle them off with barely a pause, but for years, the men behind the names were to me what they have remained to many people: a blur. Interestingly enough, however, most of these men interacted with each other for decades during one of the most turbulent yet dynamic eras of American history.

This is where Borneman really excels. In order to make sense of Polk's career, Borneman tries to sort out the chaos that was antebellum politics. In so doing he gives vivid sketches of the old power brokers like John Quincy Adams and Polk's mentor, Andrew Jackson, Polk's contemporary competitors like John Calhoun and Henry Clay, and the long list of those who had ambitions to succeed him. This list included everyone from his generals (Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott) to his cabinet (James Buchanan).

Borneman's book is a perfect length at 360 pages; while there could have been more analysis of westward migration, or the war with Mexico, or the brewing turmoil of abolitionism, these are topics best left for separate volumes. Borneman covers them adequately for purposes of discussing Polk's presidency. And the book is not just a biography of one president; it is a solid introduction to the political history of the times.

Happy Birthday to Me

It's my birthday, so no extended posts today. I'll be too busy eating Fellini's Pizza and watching the Olympics. I did want to take a moment and thank Barack Obama for the birthday gift: picking Mark Warner to be the keynote convention speaker. I can't wait to hear his speech, and to vote for him for President on November 8, 2016.

Promised Land, Crusader State by Walter McDougall

mcdougall_promised.jpgAfter finishing John Lewis Gaddis' recent history The Cold War, I thought it might be worth become familiar with American foreign policy on a larger scale. I devoted a good portion of my undergraduate studies to international relations at the theoretical level, with my first semester attendance at Stanley Hoffman's "Ethics and International Relations" being a pivotal moment in my academic (and professional) future.

The next semester I took courses on "The Causes and Prevention of War," "Terrorist Movements in International Relations" (from Louise Richardson, soon to be principal of St. Andrews), and "Sino-US Relations" . After that, the Core Program, the requirements of my concentration, and general curiosity led me further afield from the international relations realm. So while I am conversant in the basic theory (think Michael Walzer), I have some gaps to fill on the history.

I decided to start with Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State, since it purported to be a "reinterpretation of the traditions that have shaped U.S. foreign policy from 1776 to the present," and it sought to do so in just 222 pages. I also thought it important that McDougall wrote the book in 1997; this gave him a few years of distance from the tumultuous decline of the Soviet bloc, but came before the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many books written since those events are in some respects attempting to examine how these recent episodes, especially the invasion of Iraq, fit (or don't fit) into a historical survey of America's place in the world; see, e.g. Robert Kaplan's Dangerous Nation or Niall Ferguson's Colossus. I am hoping that the Oxford History of the United States' upcoming entry on foreign policy, From Colony to Superpower by George Herring, avoids this trap. The early reviews are stellar.

Unfortunately, McDougall's book is an uneven affair. He chooses a strange pseudo-religious framing technique, telegraphed by the title itself. McDougall divides the text into what he calls the "Old Testament" and "New Testament" of American foreign policy. Yet this is not a text about how American faith, or the religious establishment, influenced American foreign policy. There are a few references to this phenomena: the early belief that America was a "holy land," and the motivation for the brief imperialist efforts in the last decade of the 19th century. But that is about it; there is no organized analysis of the growth or decline of religious influence, or the differences of opinion between the various American sects. Indeed, the aspect of recent American foreign policy that most obviously begs for analysis of religious influence (both Christian and Jewish) is the nation's strong support for Israel, yet this gets but a single glancing reference near the end of the text (see Mearsheimer and Walt for that debate).

Moving to the substance of this framework he has chosen, McDougall sets out what he deems to be the eight traditions of American diplomacy:

Our Old Testament
  1. Liberty, or Exceptionalism (so called)
  2. Unilateralism, or Isolationism (so called)
  3. The American System, or Monroe Doctrine (so called)
  4. Expansionism, or Manifest Destiny (so called)

Our New Testament

  1. Progressive Imperialism
  2. Wilsonianism, or Liberal Internationalism (so called)
  3. Containment
  4. Global Meliorism

It is obvious from the list that McDougall is skeptical of the conventional wisdom about several of these traditions. He argues, for instance, that while there is a tradition of Expansionism, Manifest Destiny was a symptom (not a cause) of this tradition, since "American expansion in all its forms long predated the Manifest Destiny craze and continued long after it died." Similar caveats are explored in each of the "Old Testament" traditions.

McDougall is at his strongest in these first four chapters, laying out the basis for American creation and consolidation of its continental and then hemispheric power. The second chapter is particularly interesting; McDougall makes clear that America never had a tradition of "isolating" itself by ignoring global events:

Let us dispense with the term altogether and substitute for it a word that really describes the second great tradition in America foreign relations: Unilateralism. It was a natural, even inevitable corollary of the first American tradition, for if the essence of Exceptionalism was Liberty at home, the essence of Unilateralism was to be at Liberty to make foreign policy independent of the "toils of European ambition." Unilateralism never meant that the United States should, or for that matter could, sequester itself or pursue an ostrich-like policy toward all foreign countries. It simply meant, as Hamilton and Jefferson both underscored, that the self-evident course for the United States was to avoid permanent, entangling alliances and to remain neutral in Europe's wars except when our Liberty -- the first hallowed tradition -- was at risk.

McDougall's analysis becomes much weaker when he turns to the so-called "New Testament" traditions. In these chapters, he has two objectives: to define the tradition, and to show how it was related to the four "Old Testament" traditions. Despite this expanded ambition, McDougall constrains these chapters to the same length as the earlier ones. As a result, both of his objectives remain unsatisfied; the explications of "Progressive Imperialism" and "Wilsonianism" are thin, and McDougall moves too fast through his historical examples to leave sufficient space to connect these traditions to those that came before.

The book is especially uneven when it gets to Vietnam; McDougall saves it for the end, and the "Global Meliorism" chapter almost drowns in pages of minutiae on U.S. efforts in Indochina. This is unfortunate, because it is also the chapter where McDougall directs the strongest criticism toward America's foreign policy. McDougall attacks the basic presumption that America is capable of spreading its values around the world, and the related conviction that America would be righteous in doing so if it could:

The causal connection between poverty and oppression on the one hand, and war and revolution on the other, seems plausible, but obviously not all poor or authoritarian countries threaten their neighbors, any more than all poor people become criminals. In addition, labels like "poor" and "oppressed," "rich" and "free" are so relative as to be practically meaningless. So is the label "democracy." If it just means elections, majority rule, or government by consent of the governed, there is nothing inherently decent about it. Dictators often command overwhelming support. Democracies can trample on human rights and the rule of law. Nor can we assume that all nations prefer democracy, however defined, or are moving toward the same destination. Indeed, to diagnose and prescribe remedies for all other people on earth is nothing less than to mirror the Bolsheviks, who claimed to believe that scientific law was moving the world toward Communism, but acted as though history needed their "help."

Unlike the other chapters, where McDougall regards the diplomatic traditions as misunderstood, this tradition he deems fundamentally misguided. In the late 1990s, many or most would agree. American efforts in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia had been widely criticized, particularly by President Clinton's political opponents in the Republican Party. Based on my attendance in the classes I listed above, particularly with Stanley Hoffman, I was a strong supporter of these humanitarian interventions; in fact, the campaign in Kosovo was what convinced me to join the military. I decided that it was unjust to believe in humanitarian intervention but not be willing to put on the uniform and take part.

McDougall and I were blissfully ignorant that the rise of neoconservatives in the Republican Party would soon turns this dichotomy on its head, leading this country into a crusading invasion of Iraq; in promoting future avoidance of the "Global Meliorism" he bemoans, McDougall considered it obvious that:

[N]o international bureaucracy, much less a single nation, however powerful and idealistic, can substitute itself for the healthy nationalism of an alien people. Almost everyone agrees, for instance, that Saddam Husein is bad for his country. But can Americans be better Iraqis than Iraqis themselves, or presume to tell the Chinese how to be better Chinese? If we try, we can only be poorer Americans.

Fast-forward to the present day. American remains knee-deep in rebuilding Iraqi society five years after toppling Saddam (after justifying the invasion on every premise other than humanitarian intervention), and our president feels obliged to condemn the Chinese for their human rights abuses on the eve of his Olympic trip to their country. McDougall's prescription for American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era has not been heeded. While some will argue that "9/11 changed everything," I doubt McDougall would agree. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, after all, fit his vision of a Unilateralist response (we were helped by allies, but our strategy was not dictated by alliances) on behalf of Liberty at home. It is only with the sideways slide into adventurism in Iraq, based on misguided visions of spreading democracy and freedom abroad, that the lessons of the 20th century were forgotten.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

enger_peace.jpgDespite not being raised in an explicitly religious household, or perhaps because of it, I have had a lifelong attraction to questions of faith. I spent my teenage years in Utah, and had many friends firmly devoted to their Mormon faith. I then attended a university that while founded by Congregationalists, has since become thoroughly (if not excessively) secular; even there, I spent significant time exploring religion, from classes like "The Book of Job and the Joban Tradition" and "Theism and Moral Reasoning" to my studies at the Cambridge Zen Center. I have always felt a closer fellowship with the faithful, or with those seeking faith, than with the skeptical.

This affinity extends to literature, in a sense. I have no desire to read what is marketed as "Christian fiction"; the little I have skimmed simply does not qualify as worthy writing. Instead, what I seek is the author who can craft an excellent work of literature while also exploring religious devotion, dogma, or doctrine. Think Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Par Lagerkvist's Barabbas, or a recent favorite, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.

In his debut novel, Peace Like a River, Leif Enger incorporates substantial religious content into his plot. The novel begins with the narrator relating his own beginning; he was born without breath:

"Sometimes," said Dr. Nokes, "there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won't pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood." Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. "Lungs that can't expand to take in air. In these cases," said Dr. Nokes, "we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best." At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, "Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe."

And of course, he does. The first time I read this passage, it seemed as if Mr. Land was intervening in defiance of Dr. Nokes invocation that "we must trust in the Almighty." Read it again. Is it not just as plausible to see this scene as "the Almighty [doing] what is best" through Mr. Land's intervention? Notice that he "smote" Dr. Nokes; other than "beget," there is hardly a more Biblical verb. And surely the echoes ring from this rather famous passage:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Reuben identifies this breath as the start of his father's miracles. The second is the absence of brain damage despite being deprived of oxygen for the first twelve minutes of his life. The third comes eleven years later, on a family trip to North Dakota that lays the foundation for much of the story to come. The night of a hunting trip during which Reuben has killed his first goose, he wakes from a dream and needs to use the outhouse. As he gets outside, he observes his father pacing back and forth in the flatbed of a grain truck, praying:

And then, as I stood watching, Dad walked right off the edge of the truck.

I saw it coming--his knuckles jammed to his face, his steps not slowing at all as the edge approached. I meant to rush out and warn him, but something froze me tight. I stood there with my knees locked and my heart gone to water, while Dad paced over the edge.

And did not fall.

He went on pacing--God my witness--walking on air, praying relentlessly, a good yard of absolutely nothing between the soles of his boots and the thistles below. As he went, the moon threw his strangely separate shadow to the earth; a sleepy pigeon cooed from the barn; Dad's boot touched the tops of a thatch of tall grama growing up among the thistles, and they waved as if stroked by wind. I will forget none of this. Nor the comfortable, fluttery feeling it gave me, as though someone had blown warm smoke through a hole in my center. Dad went perhaps thirty feet, paused, and started back. His eyes were still clenched shut; I don't know whether he ever recognized how buoyant was his faith that night.

Though Reuben narrates the story, and is the center of much of the action, his father is the engine that drives the novel. After walking on air, it is not until the end of the book that Mr. Land flirts again with the supernatural. But his faith and his morality inform the story at pivotal moments along the way.

There is much to admire in what happens in the interim. Enger has crafted an interesting, if not entirely original plot in which he deploys his admirably drawn characters. A particular favorite is Reuben's younger sister Swede, who is (almost) unbelievably precocious in her production of epic poetry set in the Wild West; in her hands Zane Grey is somehow transmogrified into Homer. She joins her brother and father in their search for Davy, the eldest son who has fled from prosecution for a crime he undoubtedly committed. What the purpose of that search is, and what the family will do if they find Davy, are questions that drive the story forward.

The novel is strongest when it remains with this core, nuclear family. It is much weaker when the focus shifts to Davy's flight and the company he has taken up, and a minor derailment comes with the deux ex machina performed by one of these characters near the end of the book. Not calamitous, but off-key in an otherwise worthy novel. Enger has taken a simple plot, populated it with several wonderfully original characters, and injected a welcome dose of spirituality.

67 Books so Far

Finishing Leif Enger's Peace Like a River a few moments ago puts me two-thirds of the way toward my stated goal of reading 100 books this year. With not yet two-thirds of the year gone by, I am in pretty good shape. My reading has tilted slightly toward fiction, with 40 titles versus 27 nonfiction books. The year in reading thus far:

  1. Eventide - Kent Haruf
  2. Passionate Sage - Joseph Ellis
  3. The Assassins' Gate - George Packer
  4. Benjamin Franklin - Edmund Morgan
  5. The Survivor - John Harris
  6. Atonement - Ian McEwan
  7. The Tie That Binds - Kent Haruf
  8. The Cement Garden - Ian McEwan
  9. The Immortal Bartfuss - Aharon Appelfeld
  10. Cobra II - Michael Gordon
  11. Fiasco - Thomas Ricks
  12. In the Company of Soldiers - Rick Atkinson
  13. State of Denial - Bob Woodward
  14. Steppenwolf - Hermann Hesse
  15. The Sweet Hereafter - Russell Banks
  16. Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson
  17. His Illegal Self - Peter Carey
  18. Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis
  19. Ray in Reverse - Daniel Wallace
  20. Badenheim 1939 - Aharon Appelfeld
  21. Black Swan Green - David Mitchell
  22. The History of Love - Nicole Krauss
  23. In the Wake - Per Petterson
  24. Lincoln - Richard Carwardine
  25. Supreme Conflict - Jan Crawford Greenburg
  26. The Lake - Yasunari Kawabata
  27. Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
  28. A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
  29. Isaac Newton - James Gleick
  30. The Assault on Reason - Al Gore
  31. The Nine - Jeffrey Toobin
  32. House of the Sleeping Beauties - Yasunari Kawabata
  33. The Ice Storm - Rick Moody
  34. Harry, Revised - Mark Sarvas
  35. Justice For All - Jim Newton
  36. Becoming Justice Blackmun - Linda Greenhouse
  37. Drown - Junot Diaz
  38. The Child in Time - Ian McEwan
  39. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz
  40. The New Face of War - Bruce Berkowitz
  41. Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri
  42. Ancient Greece - Thomas Martin
  43. Obsessive Genius - Barbara Goldsmith
  44. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
  45. A Separate Peace - John Knowles
  46. The Bill of Rights - Akhil Amar
  47. Go Tell It on the Mountain - James Baldwin
  48. Polio - David Oshinsky
  49. March - Geraldine Brooks
  50. The Chosen - Chaim Potok
  51. Billy Budd - Herman Melville
  52. The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane
  53. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
  54. Dracula - Bram Stoker
  55. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
  56. Tartuffe and Other Plays - Moliere
  57. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
  58. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin - Gordon Wood
  59. Companero - Jorge Castaneda
  60. Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift
  61. Girls of Riyadh - Rajaa Alsanea
  62. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  63. The Sea - John Banville
  64. A History of Modern Japan - Andrew Gordon
  65. Russia - Philip Longworth
  66. The Cold War - John Lewis Gaddis
  67. Peace Like a River - Leif Enger

Since I am a bit ahead of my pace, I thought it was worth upping the ante a bit. If I can read 42 more books this year, for a total of 109, I will have read 400 books in the five years I have been keeping track. Worth a try, I think.

Early favorites Atonement by Ian McEwan and The Assassins' Gate by George Packer are still two of the best reads of the year, but the undisputed favorite thus far is Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's remarkable meditation on faith and family. You can imagine my excitement that her next book, Home, is a companion novel sharing Gilead's setting and many of its characters. It will be on sale September 2 and I've already placed my pre-order.

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis

gaddis_cold.jpgFor decades, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis has been one of the leading historians of the Cold War. My curiosity was piqued then, in 2006, when he produced The Cold War, a relatively compact overview of the era. The fifteen years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union seemed to be just enough time to start taking a more detached historical look back.

Insofar as I am an American born in the 20th Century who just finished reading a history of Russia, much of the ground Gaddis covers felt very familiar. This should be no surprise, since Gaddis' view of the Cold War has been informing conventional wisdom (and his students at Yale) for decades. And despite the passage of time, including the events of 9/11, Gaddis' latest text does not stray much from a traditional analysis of the era. In this case, I think that is a good thing.

Unlike Philip Longworth, who strangely tries to pinpoint America's exclusion of the Soviet Union from the Marshall Plan as the point of no return that triggered the Cold War, Gaddis explores the much deeper and more complex roots of the conflict. First, he points to several World War II-related issues that divided the Allies: the delayed opening of a second front on the continent and the possibility that the Soviet Union would reach a separate peace with Germany; the need to reconcile professed Anglo-American ideals of self-determination with Stalin's territorial demands in Eastern Europe; the occupation of defeated enemies; and the atomic bomb.

Gaddis then turns to a series of security dilemmas, which he defines as:

[S]ituations in which one state acts to make itself safer, but in doing so diminishes the security of one or more other states, which in turn try to repair the damage through measures that diminish the security of the first state. The result is an ever-deepening whirlpool of distrust from which even the best-intentioned and most far-sighted leaders find it difficult to extricate themselves: their suspicions become self-reinforcing.

Because the Anglo-American relationship with the Soviet Union had fallen into this pattern well before World War II ended, it is difficult to say precisely when the Cold War began.

Nonetheless, Gaddis goes on to discuss several post-war situations which fit the definition above: the continued presence of Soviet troops in Iran and Stalin's desire for territorial control of the Turkish straits; the Soviet refusal to participate in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which prompted George Kennan's "Long Telegram" and led to the U.S. policy of containment; and the subsequent formulation of the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine as the good cop/bad cop implementation of the new policy.

The best chapter in the book is the one least focused on the United States and the Soviet Union. In Chapter IV, title "The Emergence of Autonomy," Gaddis turns his attention to the rest of the world. He first devotes several pages to the origins of the so-called "non-aligned" countries which tried to steer a third course. Gaddis then turns to the various satellite states, and emphasizes that it was often these governments that determined the actions of their superpower sponsors, and not the other way around:

"Non-alignment" was not the only weapon available to small powers seeking to expand their autonomy while living in the shadow of superpowers: so too was the possibility of collapse... Korea's history after the Korean War provides a clear example. [Syngman Rhee's] most effective argument was that if the United States did not support him--and the repressive regime he was imposing on South Korea--that country would collapse, and the Americans would be in far worse shape on the Korean peninsula than if they had swallowed their scruples and assisted him.

The Soviet Union, it is now clear, had a similar experience with Kim Il-sung in North Korea. He was allowed to build a Stalinist state, with its own cult of personality centered on himself, at just the time when Khruschev was condemning such perversions of Marxism-Leninism elsewhere. The country became, as a result, increasingly isolated, authoritarian--and yet totally dependent on economic and military support from the rest of the communist world... Both Washington and Moscow therefore wound up supporting Korean allies who were embarrassments to them.

And who would, of course, end up dragging both the Americans and the Soviets (not to mention the Chinese) into the first hot war of the Cold War era.

One topic I was surprised to find missing from Gaddis' history was the effect of the Cold War on the domestic policy of the United States. In particular, I think it is interesting to consider what impact the Cold War had on the Civil Rights Movement in America. In his stellar From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (and the class he taught at UVA on constitutional history), law professor Michael Klarman demonstrates how intertwined the history of the Cold War and the history of civil rights were:

The importance of the Cold War imperative for racial change is hard to overstate and probably difficult to fully appreciate in our post-Cold War era... Most of the era's domestic issues -- the role of religion in public life, whether to build interstate highways, the public school curriculum (especially once the Soviets beat the Americans into space) -- were debated in Cold War terms. In such an environment, supporting racial reform because of its international implications was perfectly natural.

One cannot be certain, but the Cold War imperative for racial change seems to have been more than just rhetoric. The State Department, not known as a bastion of racial progressivism, strongly urged racial reform for Cold War reasons. In 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson defended the president's controversial order desegregating the military on the ground that segregation violated democratic principles and was "damaging to our country's reputation with millions of people around the world." The Cold War imperative was front and center when the administration began filing civil rights briefs in the late 1940s. Eisenhower and Kennedy, neither of whom was personally or politically inclined to support genuine racial reform, found Cold War arguments among the most convincing for ending segregation.

Though not the most noble motive for supporting civil rights, this attitude does highlight one of the clearly positive effects that the Cold War had on American society. In the competition to win the hearts and minds of the non-aligned populations of the world, America sought to better its race relations. It worked to close the most significant gap between American rhetoric and American reality. I am not suggesting, nor was Klarman, that the Cold War is the main (or even a relatively major) cause of the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement. Klarman spends dozens of pages analyzing other influential social and political trends. But this demonstrates just how deep an influence the Cold War had in domestic American policy, and Gaddis would have done well to devote some attention to it.

Still, The Cold War is a solid survey of the international side of the conflict, and will serve a particularly valuable role as the era fades deeper into the recesses of history.

Amazon Acquires Abebooks

Somehow I missed the news last week that the company that gets most of my money, Amazon, is buying the company that gets the rest of my money, Abebooks:

Amazon has acquired twelve year old Canadian company Abebooks (formerly the Advanced Book Exchange), the companies just announced. AbeBooks is an online marketplace for books focusing on used, rare and out of print titles for sale by independent booksellers - it currently has 110 million books for sale from 13,500 sellers.

The company has been around since 1996 and fills a niche for Amazon in hard-to-find or out-of-print books. Rather than hold its own inventory, it acts as a digital marketplace for established booksellers.

The thing to watch is whether/how Amazon integrates its Amazon marketplace with Abebooks. Some sellers list on both sites, but there are major differences. The biggest difference from a buyer's perspective is that Amazon forces its sellers to charge a set shipping fee ($3.99) while Abebooks lets sellers choose their own (I've seen everything from free shipping to $8.00 per book).

Arsenal in for Alonso?

alonso_cesc.jpgWith the news out of Villa Park that Gareth Barry is free to leave for Liverpool, the Reds' central midfield looks to be getting a bit crowded. And as we all know, the central midfield at Arsenal is decidedly uncrowded.

The perfect solution that would make everyone happy (especially me)? Liverpool should sell Xabi Alonso:

Arsène Wenger wants Xabi Alonso to form a Spanish midfield axis with Cesc Fábregas at Arsenal next season, provided Liverpool dramatically lower their £18m price for the marginalised playmaker. Arsenal have made an initial approach for the 26-year-old Alonso, who has been told he can leave Anfield for the right price.

He and Fabregas could be our dynamic Spanish duo. Like Arseblogger I rate Alonso higher than Barry, so I'm very excited at this possibility (slender as it may be based on one British newspaper source). Alonso has quality experience in the Premier League and continental competitions, and is a first team international. Plus, that's a pretty cool name. Come on Arsene, just buy him already!

Russia by Philip Longworth

longworth_russia.jpgIt was a sad coincidence that I was in the midst of reading a history of Russia when I heard that Alexander Solzhenitsyn had died. I had just finished the chapter on the decline of the Romanov empire when I decided to take a break and have some dinner. While I waited for the stove to heat up, I checked the news online and saw the story. When I returned to Philip Longworth's Russia, it was not more than fifty pages before Solzhenitsyn's name popped up.

And he was mentioned in an interesting context. Longworth listed him as one of the "few" dissidents in the Soviet Union, where "there was no sign of serious discontent." This comes at the start of an extended analysis on how surprising the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union was, considering how well-functioning it appeared to be:

As late as the 1970s and even in the 1980s there was no obvious indication of impending disaster. Indeed, the auguries read well. The Soviet Union was as mighty in weaponry as its only rival; surprising as it may seem, its population was as contented as that of the United States; and there was hardly a ripple of dissidence or nationalism anywhere in the Empire.

Surprising indeed, and consider me unconvinced by Longworth's thin sourcing. It may or may not be true, I am not a Russia expert, but this defense of life in the Soviet Union comes near the end of a book in which Longworth seeks to either minimize or rebut many of the great sins committed by the various Russian empires and its rulers.

Discussing Ivan the Terrible, he states that while "Ivan was indeed responsible for terrible massacres," so were the Spanish conquistadors, Lorenzo de' Medici, Louis XI, and Queen Mary. As such, Longworth argues that Ivan should not "be judged outside the context of his own turbulent and violent times." Perhaps, though it is only a few paragraphs later that Longworth concedes that the "murder of Ivan's opponents and suspected opponents had begun in 1563... In effect Ivan was given carte blanche to punish those who disobeyed him and anyone he considered a traitor -- without the formality of a trial." Never fear, however:

The purge was not the whim of a half-crazed paranoiac, which is the line of one popular genre of literature about Ivan. His plan was to eliminate opposition to his exercise of autocracy, which he deemed essential if Russia were to fulfill its imperial potential.

If Longworth is just rebutting the specific claim of mental illness, that is one thing; though is it worth mentioning that Ivan "killed his own eldest son in a fit of rage." But to suggest that Ivan cannot be condemned for his bloody reign either because everyone else was doing it, or because it was justified by his autocratic ambition seems far too sweeping a pardon for Ivan's behavior. Longworth seems almost eager to justify the death and destruction:

Advantage was also gained from Ivan's massacres, for they had helped to complete the revolution in landholding begun by the Tsar's predecessors.

As long as there was a reason, I guess. Longworth is similarly blasé about anti-semitism in Russia and Russian pogroms against Jews. For the most part he simply fails to discuss these issues. When he does, he is quick to make clear that it was not Russia's fault:

Hostility to Jews had been imported into Russia, as into every other Christian country, with the writings of the Church Fathers. Yet Russians themselves were no more anti-Semitic than other European peoples, and less so than many... Anti-Semitism in the Empire was for the most part characteristic of certain subject peoples rather than the Russians themselves, having been entrenched for centuries among Ukrainians, Balts, and Poles.

And there you have basically the only paragraph in the whole book about the treatment of Jews. Don't look for "pogrom" in the index, you won't find it. The only mention of pogroms is the Khmelnytsky Uprising in which Cossacks and Ukrainians killed tens of thousands of Jews. Only the briefest reference to the Pale of Settlement, and none about Tsar Alexander III's May Laws, setting harshly discriminatory policies against Jews, the expulsion from Kiev, or the Kishinev pogrom.

Longworth glosses over other Russian missteps as well. Thus the discussion of World War I moves quickly from a brief mention that Nicholas II made "a series of questionable appointments and decisions" to the fighting itself. Longworth makes no reference to Russia's pre-war support for Serbia or its full mobilization order, which many credit with triggering the broader conflict. I am not suggesting that Russia was more responsible that Austria-Hungary, or Germany, or Serbia itself, but the omission seems notable in light of Longworth's diligence in analyzing the causes of other Russian wars, such as the Crimean War and World War II.

It came as no surprise then, after this perpetual defense of Russia, that Longworth places the blame for the Cold War squarely on the shoulders of the West. According to Longworth, the Cold War was not caused by disagreement over how Europe should be governed (though he is quick to point out that "Stalin stuck to the letter of his agreement with the Western Powers), or even the ideological tensions between capitalism and communism:

[T]he Cold War could have been avoided even after Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech of March 1946. The curtain fell only over a year later, when the Marshall Aid programme was introduced to help Western European countries to recover from the war. Its terms had been designed to be unacceptable to the Soviet Union and its followers... So, when the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia applied for Marshall Aid, and learned that as beneficiaries they would be subject to public American scrutiny on a collective basis, like all other beneficiaries, they withdrew. It was, after all, unthinkable that the Power which had done most to defeat the common enemy should be exposed to what was tantamount to public humiliation.

The Marshall Plan was undoubtedly a major tool in the United States' new policy of containment. But to suggest that this caused the Cold War, rather than to acknowledge it was a weapon in the already-burgeoning conflict, is just silly. Longworth is laughably suggesting that the terms of the Marshall Plan, and the Soviet Union's inability to get cash for itself, were more responsible for the Cold War than the underlying post-war political tensions in Europe and the ideological divide between the American sphere and the Soviet one. I'll have more on this soon, as I've just started John Lewis Gaddis' recent The Cold War. Suffice it to say he tells a different story.

Longworth is also forgiving of the flaws of Vladimir Putin's early reign. He acknowledges that Putin's polices "were certainly authoritarian, but they were not directed towards a restoration of an all-encompassing state sector nor to the suppression of democracy as some suggested." You see, it was the good kind of authoritarianism. The best line:

In December 2003 Putin won an overwhelming endorsement from the electorate. Managed democracy was working. It might not meet the highest standards of constitutional politics, but was no worse a travesty than the American presidential election of 2000 had been.

Wow. Now I am no defender of Bush v. Gore. I thought it was awful law then, I think it is awful law now. But I think it bears no equivalence to an election where the incumbent wins 71% of the vote in the absence of free speech or a free press.

Perhaps it is I who have approached the book with a slanted perspective; after all, I am an American descended from Polish Jews. And perhaps Longworth is struggling against a perceived Russophobia that he feels compelled to combat at every turn. But the angle taken is so constantly pro-Russian, and so poorly sourced at exactly these pivotal moments, that it comes across more like whitewashing than a legitimate defense.

This posture is unfortunate in light of the book's overall strength (which I would have preferred to be able to emphasize), and costs Russia a full star in my rating. Longworth covers a tremendous period of time, from the 9th century to the present, and does so at a modest, measured pace. He generally does well in identifying the key actors and events, though the book definitely presumes a modest familiarity with European history.

From the start, Longworth consciously focuses heavily on the political and military history of the Russian state/empire. There is little discussion of social or cultural issues. Religion is only discussed insofar as the Orthodox church played a political role in Russia, or when the faith of particular groups affected their loyalties either toward or away from Moscow. But this is a 300-page book, and it accomplishes what it needed to, aside from the bias described above; I've got Figes and Service to fill in the details. If Longworth had just stuck to the facts, he would have succeeded admirably.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dead at 89

Sad news from Moscow: Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died. He was a Nobel laureate and a literary giant. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one of my favorite books and has been since I first picked it from a summer A.P. English reading list more than ten years ago; Cancer Ward is excellent as well. I own a copy of The First Circle, waiting to be read.

Solzhenitsyn was not afraid to speak truth to power, be it the Soviet regime that imprisoned him, or, in his infamous speech at Harvard's 1978 commencement, modern Western culture. His voice will be missed.

Gallas Remains Captain, Adebayor Remains At All?

adebayor.jpgApparently, William Gallas will keep the Arsenal captain's armband for the coming season. While I am disappointed that it won't be Fabregas or Toure, I don't see that Wenger had much choice, even if he were inclined to follow my sage advice. Considering Gallas' Birmingham tantrum last season, I can only imagine his behavior if he were demoted.

News from another source of controversy: Emmanuel Adebayor says he wants to stay:

"Now I can tell everyone that, yes, I will sign a contract," Adebayor told the club's official website.

"I never told anyone I would be leaving this club, never ever. I'm very happy we've found a solution."

Adebayor added: "I have three years left on my contract and I'm putting two or three years more, so I'm very happy being part of this family."

Well, I will believe it when I see it. Adebayor and his agent have been nothing but trouble this summer, and part of me wants Wenger to show him the door. Nevertheless, he is a talent, and it appears he has lowered his previously outrageous wage demands:

Adebayor has been tracked by AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid this summer, but decided to stay in London after Arsenal agreed to increase his wages to about £70,000 a week.

That's quite a bit lower than the £100,000 a week that Adebayor reportedly demanded, and is apparently what Arsenal has been offering for weeks. It would still be a significant raise (double, in fact), but who is to say he does not deserve that after the season he had? I do not want to reward his bad off-season behavior, but there are really only two choices: sell him, and lose our most productive striker from last season, or sign him to a new long-term contract so that the fans and the team have a reason to welcome him back.

British Historians = World's Best?

Since it is nearly impossible to imagine most American newspapers running a feature article on the popularity of our professional historians (or anything about historians at all), I am almost embarrassed to link to this article from Britain's Sunday Times asserting the superiority of British historians:

British historians are writing more fluently than ever, and with authority, on subjects people want to read about. Furthermore, with the decline in university funding, they are more professional and commercially orientated than they used to be. A decade ago, few academic historians had agents; now all the powerhouse agencies have a small but lucrative clutch of professional historians whose books they know they can sell worldwide.

I love British historians, and own many of the titles listed in the article, including Ian Kershaw's two-volume Hitler, Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain, and Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom. I will read almost anything written by Martin Gilbert or John Keegan (absent from the article as non-academics). I also recently read the excellent Lincoln written by Richard Carwardine, a professor at Oxford; British historians are skilled at examining their former colonies as well (in fact, Carwardine's book won the Lincoln Prize).

In contrast, think about the most talented Americans: Gordon Wood or James McPherson or David Kennedy. It is very tempting to generalize that the best American historians write about America, while the best British historians write about the world.

A Modern History of Japan by Andrew Gordon

gordon_modern.jpgWhen I was twelve years old, I participated in a student exchange program in Japan. I lived with a Japanese family for two weeks, went to school with the children, and visited Tokyo, Mount Fuji, and some very cool Shinto shrines. My lifelong fascination with Asia, and Japan in particular, originated from this trip. It was my first international travel, and it opened my eyes to how different, and how similar, the rest of the world is.

My interest in Asia has been largely contained to the cultural realm. I am a big fan of Asian cinema (from Kurosawa to Stephen Chow), went through a brief (but intense) anime phase, and have been deeply involved in Zen Buddhism since college. My historical knowledge of the region is must more limited. I got a heavy dose of Chinese history from the Teaching Company's "From Mao to Yao: 5000 Years of Chinese History" which I listed to during my commutes to Fort Benning last year, and a basic overview of contemporary China from Jasper Becker's very flawed The Chinese.

Japan's history remained more of a mystery to me. My knowledge of World War II gave me some sense of Japan's military history, at least in the post-Pearl Harbor years, but the rest was unknown. To remedy this, I purchased two books: Marius Jansen's very thick The Making of Modern Japan and Andrew Gordon's slimmer A Modern History of Japan. The books cover the same chronological period, from the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate around 1600 to the present day. While Jansen spends 333 pages getting to the Meiji Restoration, Gordon is there on page 61; Gordon seemed the better place to start.

I have previously discussed one of Gordon's major themes: the rise of Japanese nationalism and how it was shaped by tensions with the West after the Opening of Japan. As the turn of the century came and went, Japanese nationalism took a particularly militant turn, with wars against China, Russia, and the annexation of Korea in just a fifteen-year span.

While some blame must be laid on the West for the imperialist example it set, internal developments in Japan were of great significance. Furthermore, the rapid transformation of Japan in the late nineteenth century, from an isolated island to a world power, created new and exacerbated existing social, economic, and political tensions:

Three related projects of Japan's modernizing elite provided the context for the unexpectedly turbulent politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the drive for empire, the industrial revolution, and policies of nation-building.

Imperialism shaped domestic politics in large part because it was expensive... As the government mobilized people behind wars it unwittingly fostered the belief that the wishes of the people, whose commitment and sacrifice made empire possible, should be respected in the political process.

The rise of industrial capitalism in late nineteenth-century Japan brought on a related set of politically important changes... Industrialization then produced a growing class of wage laborers, skilled male workers as well as female textile workers. These people tended to cluster in the cities, especially Tokyo and Osaka. They played key roles in political agitations of the early twentieth century.

The impact of nation-building programs on politics was also profound... Electoral politics encouraged a vigorous partisan press, political parties, and other practices of democratic political systems: speech meetings and rallies, speaking tours and demonstrations. By the 1890s, hundred of legal, open political rallies were convened each year in major cities. This was something new in Japanese history.

Unfortunately, Japan's democratic institutions were budding at the same time its imperialist ambitions were rising, ensuring inevitable tensions between a heightened security environment and the instability of democratic politics. This instability increased dramatically in the early twentieth century, with the rise of popular protest movements (from socialists and feminists to hard-liners clamoring for expanded military aims) and violent riots on a nearly annual basis.

The domestic and international realms were further altered by the First World War, which brought dramatic gains to Japanese industry after Asia was largely cut off from European traders. These gains were temporary, however, and Japan's economy struggled in the late 1920s, only to be compounded by worldwide depression at the end of the decade. In the face of such trauma, the Japanese opted for stability and security:

[B]eginning with the years from 1929 to 1932, a combination of shocks--economic depression, intense social conflict, military expansion, and the assassination of prime ministers and leading capitalists--transformed Japan's political system. By the end of the 1930s, independent political parties, business associations, producer cooperatives, labor unions, and tenant unions were replaced by a series of state-controlled mass bodies intended to mobilize the nation for its "holy war" with China and bring harmony and order at home.

It is impossible to overstate just how much Japan's experience of World War II was primarily a conflict with China, not a conflict with the United States, contra the U.S.-centric view of the world. Thus many Japanese historians date the start of the "Fifteen-Year War" to the Manchurian Incident of 1931, which led to full-scale warfare with China by 1937. Animosity with the United States was an ancillary consequence of Japanese aggression on the continent:

Tensions between the United States and Japan had been building for some time. Throughout the 1930s, the Americans supported Chinese self-determination with strong words, but they had committed no significant resources to the Nationalists... But in July 1939, hoping to send a signal of resolve that would deter Japanese expansion, Roosevelt broke off the Japanese-American commercial treaty. This step freed the United States to place an embargo on exports to Japan, if deemed necessary.

It was deemed necessary after the Japanese used its Nazi alliance to gain Vichy France's permission to enter Indochina. When Japan fully occupied the peninsula in July 1941, the U.S. escalated its embargo and, with international cooperation, cut off Japan's foreign oil supplies. The Japanese responded at Pearl Harbor, of course, followed by the Pacific War, the atomic bombs, and the occupation of Japan. Gordon makes an interesting point regarding the long-term consequences of Japanese aggression within Asia:

Initial hopes among Indonesians, Filipinos, and Vietnamese that Japan would forcefully promote national liberation were betrayed. Even so, the brief interlude of Japanese control had an important long-run impact. Independence movements organized during the war, whether with inconsistent Japanese aid or in the face of Japanese repression, survived into the postwar era. They ultimately doomed the continuing hopes of the French, Dutch, and British for a return to the prewar system of colonial control.

Quite a bit of irony there. Militant Japanese nationalism was initially inspired by their experience at the hand of Western imperialists, led the Japanese on their own doomed conquest throughout the continent, but still ended up crippling the Western colonies in Asia. This is a particularly intriguing consequence knowing what we know about the subsequent history of the Indochine peninsula.

There are revelations like this scattered throughout Gordon's text, which gives an effective overview of modern Japan. These gems are often overwhelmed, however, by his semi-encyclopedic approach to the revolving cast of politicians, business leaders, and bureaucrats, and the movements they led. Fortunately there is a good index, as well as appendices listing the prime ministers as well as the post-1945 Diet elections.

Covering 400 years in 300 pages necessitates a quick chronological pace, but Gordon sometimes moves so swiftly that it is difficult to catch the thread of his analysis. While he does well to expedite the discussion of World War II, which is well covered elsewhere, I would have welcomed a better foundation of Sino-Japanese relations over the years, and a deeper investigation into the role (real and perceived) of the Emperor of Japan. In addition, Gordon's attention to religion tends to focus on the shifting balance of power between Buddhism and Shintoism, rather than the substance of those faiths and how they influenced the Japanese people and their leaders.

A good place to start for those interested in recent Japanese history, but I look forward to the depth of Jansen's book.