The Year in Books - 2008

While one day is pretty much indistinguishable from any other out here in the desert, my calendar tells me it is December 31. With another year over, it's time to take a look at how I did with my Great Books Project. This year I set a goal of reading at least 100 books, and I am excited to be able to say I met that goal with room to spare:

  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
  68. Promised Land, Crusader State - Walter McDougall
  69. Polk - Walter Borneman
  70. Netherland - Joseph O'Neill
  71. The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien
  72. Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris
  73. 1948 - Benny Morris
  74. Crescent & Star - Stephen Kinzer
  75. The American Plague - Molly Crosby
  76. The Demon Under the Microscope - Thomas Hager
  77. Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner
  78. First Snow on Fuji - Yasunari Kawabata
  79. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - David Wroblewski
  80. The Winds of Change - Eugene Linden
  81. The World According to Garp - John Irving
  82. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
  83. The Story of Britain - Rebecca Fraser
  84. The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
  85. Reason - Robert Reich
  86. Bad Money - Kevin Phillips
  87. The Trillion Dollar Meltdown - Charles Morris
  88. The Audacity of Hope - Barack Obama
  89. What's the Matter With Kansas? - Thomas Frank
  90. The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
  91. De Niro's Game - Rawi Hage
  92. The Conscience of a Liberal - Paul Krugman
  93. To Siberia - Per Petterson
  94. Supercapitalism - Robert Reich
  95. A Mercy - Toni Morrison
  96. Seize the Day - Saul Bellow
  97. The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides
  98. Einstein - Walter Isaacson
  99. The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera
  100. The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan
  101. 1812 - Walter Borneman
  102. When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro
  103. Charming Billy - Alice McDermott
  104. Last Orders - Graham Swift
  105. A Leap in the Dark - John Ferling

There was a slight lean toward fiction, with 59 books versus 46 nonfiction. Partially due to the quantitative nature of my reading goal, there was also a lean toward shorter books, with just over half running 300 pages or less. I'll be correcting for that in 2009.

Not every book was worthy of my time. The biggest fiction disappointments were Yasunari Kawabata's The Lake, which is one of his lesser known works for a reason, and Daniel Wallace's Ray in Reverse, which didn't hold a candle to his previous book, Big Fish. I also found two works of nonfiction noteworthy in their awfulness. Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers was basically a travelogue of hobnobbing with generals in Iraq; it is almost impossible to believe he is also the author of the widely-acclaimed An Army at Dawn and The Face of Battle. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed was a presumptuous and condescending attempt to assuage what apparently passes for a conscience in her world.

But most of what I read was pretty good. On the fiction side, my favorite book read this year was Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's remarkable meditation on faith and family. Other strong recommendations include Ian McEwan's Atonement, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety.

Amongst the nonfiction books I read in 2008, the President-elect's The Audacity of Hope topped the list. I read it just a few days before the election, and it accomplished the impossible task of making me even more proud to cast my vote for him. Of the several books I read on Iraq early in the year, George Packer's The Assassins' Gate was unquestionably the best. I also highly recommend Paul Krugman's The Conscious of a Liberal, and John Ferling's political history of the American Revolution and the early Republic, A Leap in the Dark, which I finished this very morning and will be posting about over the next several days.

All in all, a great year in reading. Tomorrow I'll set some new goals.

Last Orders by Graham Swift

swift_last.jpgI made no conscious plan to read consecutively a pair of books set amongst mourners in the aftermath of a man's death; they were just the next two books in the pile next to my desk. Yet Alice McDermott's Charming Billy (reviewed here) and Graham Swift's Last Orders both fit that niche. McDermott begins her novel with the whispered conversations at the post-funeral party; Last Orders opens with four men embarking on a road trip to carry out Jack Dodds' last request, that his ashes be scattered off a pier into the ocean:

He said he thought he should old Jack proud, he thought he should give him a real treat. Since it had been sitting there in the showroom for nearly a month anyway, with a 'client' who couldn't make up his mind, and a bit more on the clock wouldn't signify and it don't do to let a car sit. He thought he should give Jack the best.

But it's not so bad for us too, for Vic and Lenny and me, sitting up, alive and breathing. The world looks pretty good when you're perched on cream leather and looking out at it through tinted electric windows, even the Old Kent Road looks good.

Swift avoids one of McDermott's missteps by giving individual voices to the multitude of characters, rather than filtering the story through a single narrator. The structure of Last Orders bears an obvious resemblance to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, what with the quickly shifting interior monologues amidst a journey to carry a deceased loved one to an inconvenient chosen resting place. Like Faulkner, Swift emphasizes the colloquialisms in his characters' speech, to which it takes a few pages to adjust. Swift simplifies the Faulknerian structure by giving one character a disproportionate share of the pages. Ray Johnson, nicknamed Lucky, can trace his friendship with Jack all the way back to the North African desert during World War II. It is through his eyes that we make most of the progress toward the beach:

We head on past the gas works, Ilderton Road, under the railway bridge. Prince of Windsor. The sun comes out from behind the tower blocks, bright in our faces, and Vince pull out a pair of chunk sun-glasses from under the dashboard. Lenny starts singing, slyly, through his teeth, "Blue bayooo..." And we all feel it, what with the sunshine and the beer inside us and the journey ahead: like it's something Jack has done for us, so as to make us feel special, so as to give us a treat. Like we're off on a jaunt, a spree, and the world looks good, it looks like it's there just for us.

The interior monologues are put to good use; as one reviewer said, "they contain what cannot or will not be said aloud... characters speak in confidence." The dramatic irony builds as we pool our knowledge of the conversations, transactions, emotions that the characters are shielding from one another. The four men in the car argue about why Jack's widow, Amy, has chosen to visit her institutionalized daughter instead of accompanying them; we hear not only each man's interior, unguarded answer to the question, but Amy's as well:

But I still think this is where I should be. My own journey to make. Their journey and mine. The living come first, even the living who were as good as dead to him, so it'd be all one now, all the same, in his book. And I've already said goodbye to him for the last time, if not the first. Goodbye Jack, Jack old love. They can say that June won't ever be the wiser if I missed this day with her for the sake of one last day with him, there have been missed days before, about a dozen of them once, long ago, and you don't ever get a second chance to scatter your husband's ashes. But how do they know she wouldn't know? And someone has to tell her.

If she won't be the wiser, he won't either.

The birth of their severely mentally handicapped daughter drove a permanent wedge between Jack and Amy. He refused to ever visit her, while Amy visited twice a week for decades. Still unfulfilled in the desire to be parents, they adopted Vince after he was orphaned by a German bomb during World War II. There was considerable tension between Jack and Vince, who rejected them as his parents and refused to follow Jack in the family business, as Jack had followed his father. Swift devotes a considerable portion of the book to their tumultuous history. This contrasts strongly with Vic, whose sons are already well-established in the family's mortuary business. The foursome is rounded out by Lenny, a man filled with great pain and anger; he is a "stirrer," in Ray's words, offering constant provocation to the other characters, and Vince in particular (with good reason):

Lenny says, "So how's your Kath?"

Vince don't answer for a long time. It's as though he hasn't heard or he's concentrating on the road. I see him looking in the mirror.

"Still working for you at the garage?" Lenny says.

Lenny knows she isn't, and Lenny knows Vince doesn't like "garage." It's "showroom" these days. It was Lenny who said one night in the Coach, "Showroom he calls it, well we all know what's on show."

One of the problems I noted with Charming Billy was how distant one feels from the novel's namesake; Billy is the dead man, but in the end we know little about him, despite the story's focus on his life's events. Last Orders shares that flaw; Jack Dodds is nearly as much a mystery by novel's end as at the beginning; Swift does not follow Faulkner by granting the ashes their own voice. It is less an issue here, however, as so much of the story is actually ancillary to Jack's own life; we are hearing the stories of Ray and Vic and Lenny and Amy, and Jack just happens to be the man who connected them in life, and in death.

Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize for Last Orders, and its not a bad effort. However, it seems this may have been the consolatory result of regrets for not giving Swift the award for his widely-acknowledged masterpiece, Waterland. This is not a unique occurrence; remember that Paul Newman won Best Actor not for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Hustler or Hud or Cool Hand Luke, but for, wait for it... The Color of Money, a minor speck on the canvas of his career. Even the Booker committee did it again, giving Ian McEwan the prize in 2001 for his desultory Amsterdam after snubbing his superior earlier works. With that precedent, Waterland should be an extraordinary read.

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

mcdermott_charming.jpgWinner of 1998's National Book Award, Alice McDemott's Charming Billy starts at the end of its story: the friends and family of Billy Lynch gather for a party in a Bronx bar after departing the cemetery where he was just buried. Before food is even served, the debates begin about the merits and missteps of Billy's life, a life damaged and ended by alcoholism:

Not missing the irony of the drinks in their hands and the drink that had killed him, but redeeming, perhaps, the pleasure of a drink or two, on a sad, wet, afternoon, in the company of old friends, from the miserable thing that a drink had become in his life. Redeeming the affection they had felt for him, once torn apart by his willfulness, his indifference, making something worthwhile of it, something valuable that had been well spent, after all.

Redemption will be a theme throughout the novel, and its discursive weaving through the extended Lynch family history; it is an open question how much of the redemption is real, and how much hollow. Our narrator is the daughter of Dennis Lynch, Billy's cousin and best friend. Though a seemingly strange choice (and a not entirely successful one, as I'll discuss below), it reflects the reality that Billy had no children of his own, and that the story is as much about Dennis as Billy. In addition to being best friends, their lives were particularly intertwined at one pivotal moment. In 1945, just back from the war, they spend the summer fixing up a small Hampton cottage belonging to Dennis' new stepfather. While there, they meet and court a pair of Irish girls; lovely Eva casts a strong spell on Billy:

When did he fall in love with her? Probably it was the day before, before she had even come clearly into his view. But that afternoon he fell in love with the rest of his life, and that was better still. The days ahead when he would come to the beach here and the child he held, the children who ran to them, wet and trembling, would be theirs and when the flesh of her arms and her throat and her sweet breasts would be as familiar to him as his own.

At the end of the summer, Eva must return to Ireland. Billy promises to pay to bring her back and marry her, and takes a second job to save the money. Months later, after the cash is sent and no word is heard back, it falls to Dennis to deliver the tragic news to Billy: young Eva has died of pneumonia. The loss forever traumatizes Billy, despite his many friends and subsequent marriage to Maeve. It is this event that occupies much of the conversation at the funeral party, where his family debates the causes of his alcoholism and the depth (or lack thereof) of his love for Maeve. There's just one catch, which Dennis reveals to his daughter at the close of the first chapter:

In our car, crossing the bridge, he would listen with a smile when I told him about the debate that had gone on at our end of the table.

"Well, here's the saddest part," he would say, finally, wearily, as if he were speaking of an old annoyance that time had nearly trivialized, but not quite: "Here's the most pathetic part of all. Eva never died. It was a lie. Just between the two of us, Eva lived.''

Indeed, Eva had jilted Billy to marry her Irish boyfriend, and used the money he sent as the down payment on a gas station. Afraid of how the news will effect Billy, and unable to give him the news, Dennis delivers a lie that changes both their lives. As Billy descends further into alcoholism, it will be Dennis who feels obliged to help Maeve manage him, taking his midnight phone call rants, dragging him up from the gutter or stairwell into his bed.

As the book progresses, the story also travels backward into the Lynch family history: the narrator's grandfather, a boisterous street conductor much loved by his passengers; her grandmother and the German second husband whose beach cottage would prove such a meaningful locale; the courtship between Maeve and Billy, presided over by Maeve's alcoholic father; even the 1975 trip to Ireland in which Billy learns he has spent thirty years in false mourning.

McDermott does not rely on suspense to keep the novel moving forward; she has revealed all the drama up front. Instead she has simply offered up the quirks (and skeletons) that embroider an Irish extended family in 20th-century New York, and the way a single lie, a single mistaken belief, can seem to have such dramatic effects, and yet perhaps none at all:

As if... what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.

The novel is marred by a few notable missteps: first, the narrator is simply ill-suited for her task. She is both chronologically and physically distant from the family history she presents (she is the only of Dennis' children to have moved away), and it is unexplained how she is able to give so much detail about events about which she can have no better than third or fourth-hand information. The best I can muster is that she is recounting oft-retold family myths, but this raises serious questions about the veracity of her account. There is also a silly conceit that she is directing the story to her own husband (periodically lapsing into the second-person), who she met at the same Hampton beach where Billy and Eva's stillborn relationship began. This is a too cute by half attempt to redeem the emotional hole left at the core of the story by that failed romance.

Most unsatisfying is that even by the end, we know so very little about Billy himself. This may be intentional. The man is, after all, dead. But so are many of the book's characters, yet we get a better sense of Dennis' three parents (father, mother, stepfather) than we ever get of him. He was no doubt a mystery in many ways to his friends and families, but I felt cheated at being offered so much detail about ancillary figures in the Lynch family history, and so little about the novel's namesake.

Merry Christmas From Kuwait!

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When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

ishiguro_when.jpgKazuo Ishiguro is famous for offering masterful prose via supremely unreliable narrators. Each of his three novels I have read, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and now When We Were Orphans, offers the perspective of a person highly delusional about the world around them, or their place in it. In The Remains of the Day, it was a butler who could not acknowledge his emotional needs or his employer's misdeeds. In Never Let Me Go, the narrator barely grasped the nature of her own existence. In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro gives us Christopher Banks, a renowned English detective whose life is haunted by one abiding mystery, the disappearance of both his parents during his childhood in Shanghai, a fact he is in denial about from the book's first pages:

[I]t had become a matter of some irritation to me that my schoolfriends, for all their readiness to fall into banter concerning virtually any other of one's misfortunes, would observe a great solemnness at the first mention of my parents' absence. Actually, odd as it may sounds, my lack of parents - indeed, of any close kin in England except my aunt in Shropshire - had by then long ceased to be of any great inconvenience to me. As I would often point out to my companions, at a boarding school like ours, we had all learned to get on without parents, and my position was not as unique as all that.

Banks recites the gradual introduction he made into London society; after graduating Cambridge, he is slowly introduced to the London scene by old classmates. In so doing, he makes the acquaintance of Sarah Hemmings, an eccentric woman who he connects with as a fellow orphan, and whose path he would cross again. As he recounts his growing success and accompanying public reputation, Banks provides a series of glimpses into his childhood, especially the tension between his mother and father and his friendship with Akira, the Japanese boy next door. Even in these early chapters, we sense that Banks is presenting a rather selective version of his past, either by intention or by an incapacity to make sensible connections with the external world:

[W]hat I had taken exception to was his casual judgment that I had been 'such an odd bird at school.'

In fact, it has always been a puzzle to me that Osbourne should have said such a thing of me that morning, since my own memory is that I blended perfectly into English school life.

This disconnect becomes more obvious as the book progresses (when Banks encounters another classmate, he vehemently denies the assertion that he was a "miserable loner"). Though Banks repeatedly expresses his desire to return to Shanghai and solve "the big case," he fails to do so until 1937, decades after his parents disappeared. Before making the journey, he has convinced himself that not only can he solve the case, but that somehow his return to Shanghai might enable him to prevent the coming war, that the source of his parents' disappearance is also the root of all evil. He further deludes himself into believing that this idea originates not from him, but from a series of encounters in which others have suggested it is his duty to save the world from itself:

"What I mean to say, forgive me, is that it's quite natural for some of these gentlemen here tonight to regard Europe as the centre of the present maelstrom. But you, Mr. Banks. Of course, you know the truth. You know that the real heart of our present crisis lies further afield."

I looked at him carefully, then said: "I'm sorry, sir. But I'm not quite sure what you're getting at."

"Oh come, come." He was smiling knowingly. "You of all people."

Once Banks arrives in Shanghai, things get downright strange. He makes what appears to be a series of forward steps toward unlocking the mystery, but becomes entangled with Sarah Hemmings, caught in an unhappy marriage to an older man. Just as she convinces him to depart Shanghai without any concrete answers, he makes an apparent breakthrough in the case. He begins a surreal journey outside the International Settlement and into the frontline between the Chinese army and Japanese invaders, convinced he is about to find the house here he will find his kidnapped parents, alive and waiting.

The book largely begins to unravel at this point. The novel is consumed by a sense of unreality that favorable reviewers call "Kafkaesque." A better description would be "inexplicable." Just when Banks' quest seems at an end, the absurdity of it all is made so obvious that even he can no longer deny it. When all the answers are revealed, there is no sense of relief, accomplishment, or wonderment. A great mystery leaves clues along the way; here all of the clues were essentially misdirection, and the reveal is utterly disconnected from anything offered in the preceding narrative. The great variety of characters, from Banks' parents to Sarah Hemmings to the orphan girl that Banks abruptly adopts (and just as abruptly abandons to return to Shanghai), are all mere sketches. Wondrous sketches, drawn with Ishiguro's
trademark verve, but utterly hollow nonetheless.

Ishiguro's skill at word craft is undeniable, but he continues to struggle to find a narrative frame as successful as the one deployed in The Remains of the Day, which is still his unmatched triumph. Better to read that novel twice than to bother with this lesser work.

1812 by Walter Borneman

borneman_1812.jpgThe War of 1812 is little remembered and even less understood. Those that have any inkling at all are probably able to identify no more than that the war involved the burning of our capital by the British, the inspiration for "The Star Spangled Banner," and Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans after the peace treaty had been signed.

There is good reason for our common ignorance: the terms of the treaty that ended the war explicitly returned the belligerents to status quo ante bellum. The casualties of battle were relatively low, particularly compared to the epic scale seen in the contemporary Napoleonic theater. Much of the action took place in the frontiers of Canada or in single ship duels at sea; the exceptions (New Orleans, Washington, D.C.) are those best remembered. And the issues that had Americans (literally) up in arms are as forgotten as the war:

[T]he United States had quite a list of grievances against its former sovereign: impressment of American sailors, provocation of Indian unrest on its frontiers, and the outright seizure of its commercial ships. Taken individually, each might have been enough to demand a course of war. Taken collectively, and fanned by Henry Clay and his Canada-hungry war hawks, to some Americans they most certainly were--no matter how militarily unprepared the United States might be.

Borneman had done a service to popular American history by targeting our lesser-studied wars. Several years after publishing 1812, he would follow up with The French and Indian War; I have now read them both. Each represents popular history at its best and worst; the value resides in providing a gateway for those, deterred by academic history, who want to gain some familiarity with the past in an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand format. Borneman's conversational style offers few obstacles to readers more accustomed to the latest best-selling mystery or thriller, and he distills the basic historical consensus about the war into just a hair over 300 pages. He covers the who, what, when and where of each battle, with particular success regarding the naval engagements. Even for those of us looking for more, it's not a bad way to get one's feet wet on an unfamiliar subject (I followed Borneman's The French and Indian War with William Fowler's superior Empires at War, saving Fred Anderson's magisterial Crucible of War for last).

To accomplish this task, however, Borneman sacrifices the context and detail that a deeper study would provide. He had done no original research, cites few primary sources, and has no fresh insights to offer on any of the war's causes, events, or consequences. There is virtually no discussion of the domestic political scene in either America or Britain, beyond a simplistic division between New Englanders and "the Virginia dynasty." There are a few asides about American relations with France and Russia, but little mention of the history of our international or diplomatic relations after the Revolution. The events of the Napoleonic Wars are only described in the most minimal detail necessary to explain why Britain was alternately more or less distracted from prosecuting the war in America. The importance of the impressment issue is identified, but its history little explained. Borneman makes numerous references to the shores of Tripoli in describing the experience of America's naval officers, but offers not even the slightest explanation of what happened there. And on and on, leaving little more than a narrative recitation of facts.

The subtitle of the book is "The War That Forged a Nation," a nod to the apparent requirement in modern popular history that the subject of any book must have utterly changed the world in some vital way (whether it be a war or a fish). Borneman fails to support this contention with much evidence. If anything, the war revealed a plethora of parochially-minded state and local officials; militias often refused to cross borders to take part in military actions and rumors swirled that New Englanders were debating neutrality, nullification, and even secession. Borneman seems to recognize the thinness of the subtitle's claim; thus it is only in the last page or two that he even addresses it. When he does so, it is with no more than his own bare assertions, and a few quotes from those whose self-interest was served by trumpeting the war's importance. It is hard to forget that within two generations, citizens of the supposedly "forged nation" would be slaughtering each other on the battlefield.

The inescapable fact is this was a boring war with limited consequences. Since Borneman was unable or unwilling to expand the scope of his history beyond the war's narrow confines, it is little surprise he ended up writing a rather dull book. Having read and admired his latest book, Polk, I know he can do better.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

pollan_omnivores.jpgAt the beginning of his unlikely bestseller, Michael Pollan makes the case that Americans have lost touch with what was once the most basic decision humans faced: what should I eat? Though a seemingly simple question, Pollan recognizes Americans find the choice more perplexing than ever. He traces his own epiphany about "our national eating disorder" to the rise of the low-carb diets that somehow managed to banish bread, a staple food around the globe for thousands of years, from our national table:

So violent a change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals"--or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid." A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonization of another. It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day. And it surely would not be nearly so fat.

In tackling this question, The Omnivore's Dilemma traces three different food chains: "the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer." The first third of the book is by far the best, and the most disturbing. Pollan introduces us to corporate farming, and to the reality that in America, that means corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

In subsequent chapters, Pollan explores in depth the science of corn, the economics of the corn industry, the politics of corn, and the historical interaction of these elements that has led to the plant's triumph. Suffice it to say that this section of the book is so infuriating and so provocative that my colleagues are getting pretty tired of sharing meals with a guy who keeps pointing to everything at the table and shouting "That's corn, too!"

In the middle third, Pollan looks at alternative methods of farming. His account of his stay at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms (dedicated to "management-intensive grazing") is fascinating, but his look at organic farming (and the co-opting of that term) was neither as compelling nor as consequential as the exploration of king corn. The final third, in which Pollan relates his efforts to hunt boar and gather wild mushrooms, develops an intimate tone some may favor, but it struck me as a fanciful conceit that said more about Pollan and his eccentric California friends than it did about the virtues or vices of the American diet.

The chapter I was most interested in, that devoted to the ethics of eating meat, was the chapter that most disappointed me. Pollan deserves credit for tackling the issue, and he starts well enough, with a respectful outline of the arguments put forth by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation. Unfortunately, Pollan cannot mask an antipathy for vegetarianism, or at least the people who practice it (as a vegetarian I am "nothing if not self-respecting" and will "burden you with my obligatory compromises and ethical distinctions"). And Pollan has a tendency to sidestep the issue with reductionist anecdotes:

I looked into the black eye of the chicken and, thankfully, saw nothing, not a flicker of fear. Holding his head in my right hand, I drew the knife down the left side of the chicken's neck.

Set aside the presumptive personification that fear or suffering must manifest itself in the eyes of an animal, or that we would recognize it if we saw it; how is this persuasive in any way? To invoke the argument from marginal cases, the power of which Pollan readily acknowledges, why should we take any more comfort from the trusting eyes of a chicken or cow about to be slaughtered than we would the trusting eyes of an infant child, or the mentally ill or handicapped?

To close the chapter, Pollan takes refuge in this nonsense a second time, relating the ever-so-clever (and almost certainly fictional) account offered by Joel Salatin of a man who rides up with a PETA bumper sticker on his car, explains that he decided he could only eat meat again if he killed it himself, slits a chicken's throat, watches it die, and sees "that the animal did not look at him accusingly." One wonders, did Isaac look accusingly at Abraham?

To be fair to Pollan, he does acknowledge the horror of what America does to its animals:

Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end--for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.

All well and good, but Pollan is still taking the easy way out. He was so swept away by his experience at Polyface Farms, with its more mindful method of slaughter, that he sidesteps the actual choice facing individual Americans. If as a country we were able to decide to revolutionize the way our animals are raised and killed, all farms could be like Polyface. There would be less meat, it would be more expensive, but much of the evil in the process would be eliminated.

That choice is not before us today, however, and likely never will be. Instead, all each of us can do (unless we happen to live very close to Polyface Farms), is choose between eating meat produced as it is now, in all its brutality, or not eating meat at all. For several years, that's been an easy choice for me, and this book only made it easier. As Milan Kundera said in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Man­kind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

How we treat animals is not just a matter of diet, it is a matter of how we comport ourselves in the world. Pollan might have done well to explore that connection.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

kundera_unbearable.jpgMilan Kundera opens his most celebrated book in the unlikeliest of ways, with an extended exploration of Nietzche's theory of eternal return, which essentially posits that every act or event is destined to repeat itself an infinite number of times. If it did not, then any particular moment in time would be so transitory as to be light and meaningless, or so the theory goes. On the other hand, if eternal return does occur, then each and every choice carries the heaviest of burdens, as the consequences are everlasting.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

That, more or less, is the question that defines The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As the opening section suggests, this is explicitly a novel of ideas. But it is also a book about four characters and the intersections of their lives. In lesser hands there might be great tension between the sections of the book that follow these lives, and the sections in which the narrator (Kundera?) offers his philosophical musings. In Kundera's, there is none. Instead, there is symbiosis. The philosophical elements give intellectual heft to the choices made by each character and the consequences that result; their life stories offer an extended opportunity to explore how our philosophical outlooks shape our paths.

The basic outline of the book is as follows: there are two couples (Tomas and Tereza, Sabina and Franz) and in each couple one partner is philosophically heavy (Tereza/Franz) and one is light (Tomas/Sabina). The heavier partner is perpetually concerned with the meaning and impact of their choices; the lighter partner is free of such cares, favoring detachment (and in Sabina's case, betrayal). Tomas is a renowned Czechoslovakian surgeon who keeps his numerous mistresses at arm's length to avoid unnecessary entanglements. Tereza is a waitress whose chance encounter with Tomas in a small leads her to pack a suitcase and leave her small town home (and mother) behind to land on Tomas' doorstep. Sabina is an artist, one of Tomas' mistresses, and his closest friend. After the Prague Spring and the resulting Soviet invasion, all three flee to Switzerland. There, Sabina meets Franz, a married Swiss professor who falls in love with his image of Sabina as a tragic exile.

Their stories are unveiled in chapters that shift in perspective and in time, often referencing pivotal moments in their lives that are left unexplained until later in the book. As their stories develop, the trajectories of the relationships depart. With great difficulty and uneven progress, Tomas and Tereza makes compromises and grow closer together; Tomas accepting the importance of some weight, Tereza allowing herself to feel moments of lightness. In a key moment, Tomas chooses to abandon his medical practice and his mistresses in Switzerland to follow Tereza, who has returned to Prague.

By contrast, Franz and Sabina only commit themselves further to the extremes, exposing itself nakedly in the moment they break. Franz finally reveals the affair to his wife, and flees to Sabina. They make love and are supremely happy: Franz imagining he is starting the rest of his life with the love of his life, Sabina reveling in the freedom of knowing this is to be the last time she will see Franz:

Making love, she was far, far away. Once more she heard the golden horn of betrayal beckoning her in the distance, and she knew she would not hold out. She sensed an expanse of freedom before her, and the boundlessness of it excited her. She mad mad, unrestrained love to Franz as she never had before...

He felt like a rider galloping off into a magnificent void, a void of no wife, no daughter, no household, the magnificent void of no wife, no daughter, no household, the magnificent void swept clean by Hercules' broom, a magnificent void he would fill with his love.

Each was riding the other like a horse, and both were galloping off into the distance of their desires, drunk on the betrayals that freed them, Franz was riding Sabina and had betrayed his wife; Sabina was riding Franz and had betrayed Franz.

The commitments to their respective extremes will be each of their undoing, perhaps Kundera's way of asserting that we should endeavor to keep our light and heavy elements in balance.

Einstein by Walter Isaacson

isaacson_einstein.jpgThere are some individuals from history whose legacy looms so large that it has become detached from its underlying basis. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a symbol of civil rights even for those who can't link him to the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Mother Theresa is a symbol of charity even for those who can't identify the city or country in which she ministered (Calcutta, India). Albert Einstein is a symbol of scientific genius even for those who don't know his Nobel Prize was awarded for "discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect," not for his theories of special and general relativity. I don't say this to be judgmental; I'm not in any way immune to this effect. That's why I so highly value a good biography of these larger-than-life figures, and that's why I was so excited to see that Walter Isaacson had published Einstein.

Isaacson has made a little niche for himself telling the life stories of diverse individuals whose achievements have been obscured by their symbolism, publishing Kissinger in 1992 and Benjamin Franklin in 2003; I found the latter superior to the efforts by Edmund Morgan and Gordon Wood (no mean feat).

The science-related books I most enjoy are those that succeed in taking on the challenge of presenting complex science to a popular audience. And it does not get more complex than modern physics. That's part of why Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb is such a masterpiece; he turned a story fundamentally about nuclear physics and technological innovation into a gripping human narrative. Isaacson has similar success with Einstein; he does not shy away from extended discussions of the state of pre-Einstein physics, the triumphs Einstein achieved (especially those in his Annus Mirabilis), or the early work in quantum mechanics that would rile Einstein until the end of his life ("God does not play dice").

Isaacson does not gloss over the less flattering aspects of Einstein's life, particularly in his roles as a husband and father. He essentially abandons his first wife and their children, engages in numerous adulterous affairs, before marrying again. Still, this is a life to be wondered at. Unable to obtain any sort of academic job after graduating college, he is a clerk in the Swiss patent office when he makes his major breakthroughs in 1905, working mostly at night. He worked primarily from intellectual principles, favoring thought experiments above all else:

Some scientific theories depend primarily on induction: analyzing a lot of experimental findings and then finding theories that explain the empirical patterns. Others depend more on deduction: starting with elegant principles and postulates that are embraced as holy and then deducing the consequences from them. All scientists blend both approaches to differing degrees. Einstein had a good feel for experimental findings, and he used this knowledge to find certain fixed points upon which he could construct a theory. But his emphasis was primarily on the deductive approach.

To explain why Einstein was essentially able to simply think his way toward a revolution in physics, Isaacson emphasizes his knack for "questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane." Einstein also had a professed love for simplicity, believing to the end that it was possible to create a single theory that would resolve the tensions inherent in modern physics:

While others continued to develop quantum mechanics, undaunted by the uncertainties at its core, Einstein persevered in his lonelier quest for a more complete explanation of the universe--a unified field theory that would tie together electricity and magnetism and gravity and quantum mechanics.

Indeed, he would pursue this until his dying day, without success. In so doing, the erstwhile revolutionary would be cast as a stubborn conservative by the younger generation that used his innovations as a launching pad into the new field of quantum mechanics. Einstein himself recognized the irony: "To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself."

Beyond science and his personal life, Isaacson also explores the breadth of Einstein's personality: his evolving religious beliefs (essentially deistic, and strongly critical of atheism), his geographic flight from Germany (and back, and away again), his pacifism and the modifications made in the shadow of Hitler, his growing commitment to Zionism (he was offered, and declined, the presidency of Israel after Chaim Weizmann's death), his tangential involvement with the development of the nuclear bomb, and his support for a supranational government to safeguard (impose?) world peace. A thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable book about one of modernity's genuine heroes.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

eugenides_virgin.jpgThe Virgin Suicides is the second novel I've read in recent months written in the unusual first-person singular ("we"), after Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. In that book, "we" represented the homogenization and de-personalization of modern office culture. Here, Eugenides uses it to depict the shared memory and investigation of a group of men, now middle-aged, exploring a 13-month period in their teenage lives in which the five daughters of a neighborhood family all committed suicide:

Only one boy had ever been allowed in the house. Peter Sissen had helped Mr. Lisbon install a working model of the solar system in his classroom at school, and in return Mr. Lisbon had invited him for dinner. He told us the girls had kicked him continually under the table, from every direction, so that he couldn't tell who was doing it.

Set in the American suburbs of the 1970s, The Virgin Suicides opens with a reference to the final suicide, Mary, before returning to the event that started it all: the attempted wrist-cutting suicide of the youngest daughter, Cecilia. It is Cecilia's successful suicide, committed several weeks later during a party while her family and the neighborhood boys were in the basement, that haunts the book. The daughters do not drop one by one; instead the whole family begins to recede from the habits of daily suburban life, eventually holing themselves up completely in a house that goes uncleaned, unwashed, and unvisited:

No one ventured to the house anymore, not any of our mothers or fathers, not the priest; and even the mailman, rather than touching the mailbox, lifted the lid with the spine of Mrs. Eugene's Family Circle. Now the soft decay of the house began to show up more clearly. We noticed now tattered the curtains had become, then realized we weren't looking at curtains at all but at a film of dirt, with spy holes wiped clean. The best thing was to see them make one: the pink heel of a hand flattening against the glass, then rubbing back and forth to uncover the bright mosaic of an eye, looking out as us. Also, the gutters sagged.

Throughout this descent, the neighborhood boys grow more and more obsessed with the Lisbon daughters; they come to view them (collectively, as they admit being unable to distinguish between the girls at several points) as the very symbol of feminine mystery. There are a variety of attempts to breach the defenses placed by the Lisbon parents, starting with local teenage playboy Trip Fontaine's quest to date Lux, the youngest remaining sister. He finally succeeds in convincing Mr. Lisbon to approve her attendance at the Homecoming dance, on the condition that the other girls accompany them:

That was how a few of us came to take the girls on the only unchaperoned date they ever had. As soon as he left Mr. Lisbon's classroom, Trip Fontaine began assembling his team. At football practice that afternoon, during wind sprints, he said, "I'm taking Lux Lisbon to Homecoming. All I need is three guys for the other chicks. Who's it going to be?" Running twenty-yard intervals, gasping for breath, in clumsy pads and unclean athletic socks, we each tried to convince Trip Fontaine to pick us.

As the year comes to a close, and final suicides are played out, the intense obsession settles into a lifelong haunting. It is the Lisbon girls who are permanently etched as the female archetype, and it is through subsequent evidence-gathering and interviews in later years that the collective narrators have pieced together the story they present.

One of the novel's difficulties is how little is ever revealed about the Lisbon girls beyond the conjecture of the neighborhood. This is surely intentional; among the books themes are the unbridgeable distances between individuals, the enigma of the opposite sex, and the unreliability of accepted gossip. Yet by keeping the collective narrators at arm's length, the reader can get no closer. And in a book that works hard to subvert the expected, Eugenides gave the Libson daughters two caricatures for parents: a kindly but befuddled father who can't connect with his band of female offspring, and a cold, priggish mother who stunts their every attempt at independence. More provocative than evocative, the novel just never quite connected.

Why I'm Tired

It took me 46 hours to get from Atlanta to Kuwait.

Eggnog Bread

eggnog_bread.jpg

This twist on a holiday favorite comes from Allrecipes with a single adjustment:

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup eggnog
2 teaspoons dark rum
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease the bottom of a 9"x5" loaf pan with butter/flour or spray. I prefer a spray with flour added, like Baker's Joy or Pam Baking.

Blend together the eggs, eggnog, rum, sugar, vanilla and butter. The original recipe calls for rum extract, which is fine. But the real stuff is better; I recommend Myers Dark.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Add to eggnog mixture and stir just enough to moisten; pour into prepared pan.

Bake bread in large pan for 40 to 60 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. That is a pretty wide spread, so be very sure your tester comes out clean. Otherwise the center will sink as it cools. Cool for 10 minutes, and remove from pan. Cool completely, wrap tightly and store in refrigerator.

I made mini-loaf versions of this last year for my holiday gift bags for my office, and they were a big hit. This year I doubled the recipe and made two full loafs, one for my office bake sale and one for my wife's office. Festive and delicious!

Chocolate Cheesecake Pecan Bars

cheesecake_pecan.jpg

This recipe comes from Paula Deen, via Bake or Break:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 cups finely chopped pecans
2 (8 oz.) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
4 eggs
4 oz. semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 13″x 9″ baking dish with foil, then butter/flour or spray foil. I prefer a spray with flour added, like Baker's Joy or Pam Baking.

Combine flour and 3/4 cup of the brown sugar. Cut in the softened butter until crumbly. Stir in 1/2 cup of the chopped pecans. Press mixture into bottom of pan, and bake for 10 minutes.

Using an elecric mixer on medium speed, combine cream cheese and white sugar until smooth. Add 1 egg and beat until combined. Stir in the chocolate and vanilla extract, then pour over baked crust. Bake for 15 minutes, and allow to cool for 10 minutes.

Whisk together the remaining 3/4 cup of brown sugar, corn syrup, melted butter, and 3 eggs. Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans. Pour over the cream cheese mixture. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until center is set. Cool completely in pan. Cut into squares and serve.

Though the recipe does not call for it, I recommend refrigerating the bars for at least an hour before serving. I find that any desert that involves a cheesecake layer is improved by a brief chill, which lets the cheesecake set further than cooling to room temperature allows. But these are delicious either way.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

bellow_seize.jpgMy stated effort to read 100 books this year has gone reasonably well, though a quick look at the list reveals a decided, if predictable, lean toward slimmer volumes. In some cases, this led to rich rewards: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried weigh in under 300 pages, but rank among the best novels I've read of any length.

Other books suffer for their brevity, and Saul Bellow's Seize the Day is one of them. Written in 1956, the book came three years after Bellow's lengthy bildungsroman, The Adventures of Augie March. It was followed in the next several years by Henderson the Rain King and then Herzog, and in a number of key ways Seize the Day seems to be a short outline for these later, superior works.

It is the story of a single day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, f/k/a Wilhelm Adler. Wilhelm has recently left his wife and children and moved into the Hotel Gloriana, a decaying storehouse of the elderly, including his father, Dr. Adler. He is out of place in this residence, and out of place everywhere else. He has left or been expelled from his family, his job, and his sense of self. He is financially and psychologically adrift, and the novel follows him as he spends the day flailing about. As always, Bellow reigns supreme in his portraiture:

Even when his spirits were low, Wilhelm could still wrinkle his forehead in a pleasing way. Some of the slow, silent movements of his face were very attractive. He went back a step, as if to stand away from himself and get a batter look at his shirt. His glance was comic, a comment upon his untidiness. He liked to wear good clothes, but once he had put it on each article appeared to go its own way. Wilhelm, laughing, panted a little; his teeth were small; his cheeks when he laughed and puffed grew round, and he looked much younger than his years.

Wilhelm has been disappointed by life; an aborted attempt to make it in Hollywood left him with little more than a changed name, and was an embarrassment to his father. His father's disapproval weighs heavily on him, and their relationship is a main focus of the text. Two encounters between the men bracket the day; the breakfast they share in the morning and a more angry confrontation late in the day. With his pride regarding material success, it is clear that Dr. Adler thinks little of his son, attributing his failures to personal defects and refusing to subsidize him:

"You make too much of your problems," said the doctor. "They ought not to be turned into a career. Concentrate on real troubles--fatal sickness, accidents." The old man's whole manner said, Wilky, don't start this on me. I have a right to be spared.

Perhaps seeking to make up for this dysfunctional paternal relationship, Wilhelm has grown close to another hotel resident, Dr. Tamkin. Dismissed as a fraud by Dr. Adler, Tamkin has given Wilhelm a great deal of advice, often speaking in psychological terms. In a desperate move, Wilhelm has given Tamkin a power of attorney to invest his last seven hundred dollars. Tamkin invested the money in lard on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and a great deal of the day's anxiety revolves around this investment, which has gone poorly in the preceding days. Wilhelm's faith in the man has been shaken, and he now views with skepticism the unlikely tales Tamkin shares about his past, his patients, and just about any other topic that comes up:

Wilhelm's face became ponderous again and pale. His whitened gold hair lay heavy on his head, and he clasped uneasy fingers on the table. Sensational, but oddly enough, dull, too. Now how do you figure that out? It blends with the background. Funny but unfunny. True but false. Casual but laborious, Tamkin was. Wilhelm was most suspicious of him when he took his driest.

Bellow surely broke ground in 1956 with a novel dedicated almost entirely to a single day's worth of psychological meanderings by a troubled, middle-aged man. But if the technique is innovative, its use is pedestrian. Yes, there are psychological and philosophical questions raised by life in the modern world; but what of it? Absent the book's 11th-hour epiphany (and I am a hard-wired skeptic of epiphanies), Wilhelm has spent the book standing still and flapping his arms.

Perhaps the verdict would be kinder if we didn't know that within a decade, Bellow would produce a pair of expansive takes on a similar theme. Eugene Henderson and Moses Herzog shared Wilhelm's displacement in the modern world, but look at what comes of it! Henderson's journey into Africa is perhaps my favorite novel. Seize the Day is a decent appetizer, but make sure to save room for one of the subsequent books as an entree.

Georgia's Special Election

martin.jpgMy experience with the special election here in Georgia was quite a contrast from election day four weeks ago. My wife and I moved at a more leisurely pace getting dressed, anticipating a shorter wait than the two hour line from the general election. We bundled up a bit more this time, since the temperature has taken a precipitous plunge, and walked over to our local Starbucks for a bit of fuel.

As we waited in line to order, my wife noticed that sitting at a nearby table was none other than Jim Martin, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and the man for whom we had ventured out to vote. We opted not to bother him; between the primary, the primary run-off, the general election, and the general run-off, the man has surely had enough of shaking hands and being photographed. Still, it was neat to see him serendipitously on our way to the polls.

We voted at the same location, the All Saints Episocopal Church, but it was a very different scene this morning. Instead of a line wrapping around two city blocks, there was nary a soul in sight. We walked straight into the voting room, filled out our information slips, showed our ID cards, pressed the touchscreen four times, and that was it. We walked home and got ready for work. A much simpler process, though I doubt it bodes well for Mr. Martin, who needs to rack up big numbers in urban precincts like ours. I guess we'll see.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

morrison_mercy.jpgThe critics have not been kind to Toni Morrison in recent years. Of the two novels Morrison published after wining the Nobel Prize in 1993, Michiko Kakutani called Paradise "flatfooted and highly schematic" and Love "one of her slighter efforts" and "an awkward retread" of her earlier works. One could be forgiven for thinking that she had peaked in 1987 with Beloved, that spectacular novel about slavery, death, and haunting love.

But Morrison is not finished yet. She has just published A Mercy, a novel with a slenderness that belies the power within its pages. As with Beloved, Morrison takes us into the history of slavery, this time traveling all the way back to the late 17th century at the intersection of three cultures: African slaves dragged across the ocean, remnants of the Native American tribes decimated by war and disease, and immigrant Europeans looking to establish a paradise in a new world.

Morrison brings these elements together at the small Northern farm of Jacob Vaark. Vaark is joined there by his wife, Rebekka, imported from Europe, and three servants: Lina, the lone survivor from her Native American village; Sorrow, mentally imbalanced since being rescued from a shipwreck; and Florens, a young slave girl taken reluctantly by Vaark as payment of a debt owed him by a Southern plantation owner. The story of each of the five is given its due in chapters not subservient to chronology, rife with foreshadowing. In the first, Florens gives a child's recitation of her experience of being sold to Vaark; she feels betrayed by her mother, who offered Florens up in place of herself and her infant boy:

Me watching, my mother listening, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir. Sir saying he will take instead the woman and the girl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A minha mae begs no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she says, my daughter, she says. Me. Me.

This sense of betrayal leaves Florens hungry for love and affirmation. It is a scene that will be revisited from other points of view several times in the book, a sort of Rashomon effect that reveals the complexity of the seemingly simple, stark act that opens the novel. Morrison layers the whole story in this way; bit by bit we get the history that brought each character to the farm, we begin to see the interdependence of these women, each a cast away in her own right. We see the burdens they bear for a man's ambition, and the struggle they face in his absence. As Florens' mother says, when finally given her chance to speak in the final chapter, "To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below."

The histories of these women take us to the plantations, the slave ships, the auctions, the Native American village. There are encounters with religious pluralism and religious persecution. Like Beloved, Morrison has captured the essence of a tumultuous period of American history and managed to place a worthy fictional narrative therein. A stellar short novel that will reward each reading.

Supercapitalism by Robert Reich

reich_supercapitalism.jpgFew members of the Democratic intelligentsia have both the liberal credentials and the government experience comparable to that of Robert Reich. He was a member of both the Carter and Clinton administrations, serving in Clinton's cabinet as a notable progressive voice in a team of centrists. His 2004 book, Reason, which I explored in a series of posts (1, 2, 3) was a road map for liberals to regain the political high ground on morality, economics, and patriotism, and much of what he wrote has proved successful in the past two federal elections.

So when Robert Reich writes a book on the clash between capitalism and democracy, it is worth paying attention. In Supercapitalism, published last year, Reich traces the changing face of capitalism in the late twentieth century, from the stable (if stagnant) oligarchical post-war manufacturing economy to the modern slash and burn Wall Street/Walmart economy, fueled by an unquenchable thirst for low prices and high profit margins. He deems the older system democratic capitalism, the new system supercapitalism. As the names suggest, Reich believes the rise of uber-capitalism, accompanied by both tremendous economic growth and rising inequality, has severely undermined the power of the political sphere:

Democracy means more than a process of free and fair elections. Democracy, in my view, is a system for accomplishing what can only be achieved by citizens joining together with other citizens--to determine the rules of the game whose outcomes express the common good... Yet democracy is struggling to perform these basic functions. As inequality has widened, the means America once used to temper it--progressive income taxes, good public schools, trade unions that bargain for higher wages--have eroded. As the risks of sudden loss of job or income have grown, the social safety net has become less reliable. More of us lack health insurance. As a nation, we seem incapable of doing what is required of us to reduce climate change... In all these respects, democracy has been unable to take effective action, or even articulate the tradeoffs and sacrifices doing so would entail.

Capitalism has become more responsive to what we want as individual purchasers of goods, but democracy has grown less responsive to what we want together as citizens.. The last several decades have involved a shift of power away from us in our capacities as citizens and towards us as consumer and investors.

Reich describes an era he deems "The Not Quite Golden Age," in which "a unique blending of capitalism and democracy" took hold in the United States in the thirty years after World War II, combining "a hugely productive economic system with a broadly responsive and widely admired political system."The features of democratic capitalism included independent regulatory agencies that "would assure companies a steady flow of profits and customers a steady price," complicity by a few huge corporations that preferred steady, stable profits with little competition, top executives who viewed themselves as "corporate statesmen" charged with "balancing the claims of stockholders, employees, and the American public," and powerful unions that would negotiate good wages and lucrative fringe benefits like health care and pensions. The economic prosperity of the 1950s, with the rise of the middle class, growing economic equality, and vast stability, seemed to validate the system.

There was parallel action in the political sphere, in which politicians "paid careful attention to local elites--small business that comprised the local chamber of commerce, for example, and to national organizations whose members were active in local chapters, such as the American Legion, the Farm Bureau, and union branches." This responsiveness to civic society was accompanied by government empowerment of "new centers of economic power that offset the power of the giant companies," including labor unions, farm cooperatives, and retail chains; this was dubbed "countervailing power" by John Kenneth Galbraith. It did not last:

Since the late 1970s, a fundamental change has occurred in democratic capitalism in America, and that change has rippled outward to the rest of the world. Capitalism has triumphed, and not simply as an ideology. The structure of the American--and much of the world's--economy has shifted toward far more competitive markets. Power has shifted to consumers and investors.

Meanwhile, the democratic aspects of capitalism have declined. The institutions that undertook formal and informal negotiations to spread the wealth, stabilize jobs and communities, and establish equitable rules of the game--giant oligopolies, large labor unions, regulatory agencies, and legislatures responsive to local Main Streets and communities--have been eclipsed. Corporations now have little choice but to relentlessly pursue profits. Corporate statesman have vanished.

Reich argues that the change was not caused by inflation, or the oil embargo, or Reagan's tax cuts, or deregulation, or globalization, or greed, or corruption, or countless other theories, which he calls "nonsense." While some of these played a role (particularly deregulation and globalization), they fail to explain why the change occurred when it did or why it took place in Europe and Japan as well as America. Reich suggests that the "real explanation involves the way technologies have empowered consumers and investors to get better and better deals--and how these deals, in turn, have sucked relative equality and stablity, as well as other social values, out of the system." In particular, he emphasizes the lowering of barriers to entry by new, smaller businesses, the advances in container shipping dramatically dropping the costs of international transport and increased specialization in production. The resulting competition, with no price controls or limits on competition, drove prices down; consumers will always take their business wherever the price is lowest.

At roughly the same time, "savers turned into investors, and investors turned active." They were no longer content with healthy, stable interest-bearing savings accounts. Instead, they began to put money into stocks, with mutual funds and pension funds in particular wielding enormous influence:

To lure or keep these collections of shareholders, CEOs had to do everything possible to raise the value of their companies' shares. They had no choice but to focus ever more intently on creating "shareholder value."

Thus we have have a simultaneous push for lower prices and higher profits; that means everything in between gets squeezed, and the results are always pretty: rising income inequality, job instability, market volatility, and lots of uninsured. In a particularly thought-provoking chapter, Reich argues that Americans really have no one to blame but themselves for the rise of supercapitalism. As consumers and investors, we support and benefit from a system that emphasizes low prices at the store/gas pump/dealership without foregoing high returns on our IRA/401(k) investments.

Reich takes a closer look at Wal-Mart, the target of much anti-corporate venom, and claims the company is simply being responsive to the market pressures that we as consumers and investors are placing upon it. He discusses the mercenary behavior of corporate executives, and suggests they if they are not doing anything illegal, they are doing only what the drive for profits demands. Not the sort of thing one might expect from Robert Reich. That's what makes it so provocative. At the same time, Reich recognizes that the citizen in many of us is troubled by these side effects of supercapitalism. Yet the consumer-investor seems to always win. Reich explains that:

[M]arkets have become hugely efficient at responding to individual desires for better deals, but are quite bad at responding to goals we would like to achieve together. While Wal-Mart and Wall Street aggregate consumer and investor demands into formidable power blocs, the institutions that used to aggregate citizen values have declined.

This includes regulatory agencies, labor unions, and local civic associations. In their absence, individual citizens are powerless to make much difference, and are unlikely to even try knowing they will be making personal sacrifices for little social gain. Instead, Reich argues that we must enact "laws and regulations that make our purchases and investments a social choice as well as a personal one." Examples he points to include laws that promote labor organizing, a transfer tax on stock sales to slow day trading, extended unemployment insurance, fair trade treaties, a more progressive income tax, and universal health care.

Reich recognizes the difficulty such an agenda faces in an era where the democratic process has become dominated by lobbying groups. He dedicates a whole chapter to exploring the history of lobbying, demonstrating that the fast majority of Capitol Hill (as well as courtroom) battles are not consumers vs. corporations, but corporations vs. other corporations. The insurance company vs. the pharmaceutical company; the telephone company vs. the cable company, and so on. What Reich details is that corporations have recognized that Washington is just another battlefield; politics is just capitalism by other means. In an environment where every penny counts, getting a good contract, a good regulation, or a good law out of Washington can make the difference. So investing in a Washington operation is just good business.

What the confluence of money and politics has done is made the government less responsive to our interests as citizens, rather than responsive to our interests as consumers and investors, something the corporations are already doing. Nevertheless, Reich dismisses the non-legal pressures that many have sought to place upon corporations. He examines the movement for "corporate social responsibility" and concludes it is a mere diversion, allowing corporations to get morale points for taking actions that were already in their interest:

All these steps may be worthwhile but they are not undertaken because they are socially responsible. They're done to reduce costs. To credit these corporations with being "socially responsible" is to stretch the terms to mean anything a company might do to increase profits if, in doing so, it also happens to have some beneficent impact on the rest of society.

Furthermore, with the emphasis on low prices and high profits, Reich argues that supercapitalism actually prevents companies from being socially responsible, because "[c]ompetition is so intense that most corporations cannot accomplish social ends without imposing a cost on their consumers or investors--who would then seek and find better deals elsewhere." Reich goes further, and suggests that current law makes it illegal for corporate executives to be beneficent with their shareholders' money. In the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami, President Bush boasted about the generosity of American CEOs; Reich says not so fast:

The assembled CEOs had not been generous--they had not contributed their own money. They had donated their shareholders' money. Presumably they had done so in the belief that their shareholders would benefit from the public relations value such contributions added to the firms' bottom lines. Otherwise, these CEOs would have violated their fiduciary duties and risked having their shareholders switch to other companies that didn't give away their money. Shareholders do not invest in firms expecting their money will be used for charitable purposes. They invest to earn high returns.

Reich derides the growing proclivity of politicians to use "public shaming" as a tactic for fighting bad corporate behavior. He goes through a series of examples, from oil companies with record profits to Yahoo and Google's cooperation with Chinese authorities, and argues that not only is this tactice ineffective, and a ppor substitute for legislation, it is fundamentally misguided:

Corporate executives are not authorized by anyone--least of all by their consumers or investors--to balance profits against the public good. Nor do they have any expertise in making such calculations. That's why we live in a democracy, in which government is supposed to represent the public in drawing such lines.

There's a lot here to argue with, and Reich certainly offers more descriptions of what is wrong than prescriptions for how to fix it. He also wrote this book before the last year's parade of corporate failures and government buy-ins/bailouts, which further entwine the fates of our democracy and our economy. But this is provocative stuff, much of it the sort of thing a liberal would expect from the Wall Street Journal and dismiss accordingly. He dismisses many of the tactics that liberal groups have been emphasizing in recent years, and promotes some that liberals might never consider (e.g. eliminating the corporate income tax to destroy the fiction of the corporation as a person). To see it come from Reich, and to read his justifications and purposes in urging just innovations as an end to the corporate income tax, is certainly eye-opening, and enough to put the ideas on the table for discussion.