Thursday, July 19, 2018

Back to the Classics: 20th Century Classic

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Brave New World Revisited - Aldous Huxley

The novel Brave New World (1931) envisioned a world under a soft dictatorship. That is, the world was ruled by coldblooded leaders who instead of brute force and state violence used genetic manipulation, sleep teaching, recreational drugs, endless entertainment, and casual sex to tightly control the world’s population.

In this reconsideration from 1958, Huxley writes his science fictional dystopia is just around the corner. He identifies the forces that are frog-marching us all into a world of less and less freedom. He argues that progress in the medical sciences has controlled death efficiently by controlling or even eradicating diseases. But we have not controlled population growth. Social unrest in developing countries due to lack of jobs and poverty force central governments to take more and more of a role in maintaining order, which tends to push governments into a more authoritarian direction.

Also diminishing our freedom are not just ensuring order and domestic tranquillity but efficient forms of public and private propaganda. Huxley’s quick review of Hitler’s use of mass media is a masterful examination of how Hitler imposed his will on the German people.

Hitler made his strongest appeal to those members of the lower middle classes who had been ruined by the inflation of 1923, and then ruined all over again by the depression of 1929 and the following years. "The masses" of whom he speaks were these bewildered, frustrated and chronically anxious millions. To make them more masslike, more homogeneously subhuman, he assembled them, by the thousands and the tens of thousands, in vast halls and arenas, where individuals could lose their personal identity, even their ele­mentary humanity, and be merged with the crowd. A man or woman makes direct contact with society in two ways: as a member of some familial, professional or religious group, or as a member of a crowd. Groups are capable of being as moral and intelligent as the individuals who form them; a crowd is chaotic, has no purpose of its own and is capable of anything except intelligent action and realistic thinking. Assembled in a crowd, people lose their powers of reasoning and their capacity for moral choice. Their suggestibility is increased to the point where they cease to have any judgment or will of their own. They become very ex­citable, they lose all sense of individual or collective responsibility, they are subject to sudden accesses of rage, enthusiasm and panic. In a word, a man in a crowd behaves as though he had swallowed a large dose of some powerful intoxicant. He is a victim of what I have called "herd-poisoning." Like alcohol, herd-poison is an active, extraverted drug. The crowd-intoxicated individual escapes from responsibility, in­telligence and morality into a kind of frantic, animal mindlessness.

Demagogues use mass media to repeat the same simple ideas all the time in the simplest language to appeal to passion and prejudice.  Huxley argues that the use of soft drugs, having tranquilizing benefits with few side effects, coupled with propaganda techniques, will bypass what few abilities we have to think rationally and thus appeal to our herd-minds, ever subject to dark passions and ugly prejudices. We will think we are free. But we will live in thrall, just doing it, opening happiness, thinking different, running on dunkin, and winning again.

Huxley wrote this short retrospective in order to warn readers against propaganda laid out by advertising companies and politicians. He urges people to apply critical thinking in order to analyze what they hear and read because when we start reacting to news with passion and prejudice we have joined the herd-mind whereas when we analyze on our own we can do so dispassionately and rationally. In fact, he says the whole idea of freedom – in other words, not prey to passion and prejudice – is based on all human beings becoming educated enough to understand their own judgements and base them on nature, i.e. reality.

Democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest in any given circumstance. The democratic process is short-circuited when the techniques of advertising are used to bypass the rational side of voters to appeal to hatreds and irrational ideas.

Though no prophet scores 100% on predictions coming out, this book is as relevant now as it was when it was published sixty years ago.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Strange Tale from East of the River

A Strange Tale from East of the River and Other Stories  - Nagai Kafu(Author), Edward Seidensticker (Translator)  4805302666

Nagai Kafū (永井 荷風, 1879 – 1959) loved the old downtown section of Tokyo for its theaters, variety shows, bars, geisha houses, and music. Like Lafcadio Hearn, he enjoyed the old, the neglected, and the out of the way in arts and entertainment, since he had no interest in business, society, politics, or imperial policies that wanted to turn East and Southeast Asia into a vast slave labor camp. Like any decent person, he just wanted to be left alone, unhassled by the cops in their constant stop-and-frisks used against anybody they didn’t like the looks of, even – or especially - harmless bookish types like Nagai Kafū.

These stories give a sense of the culture of the old downtown, the shitamachi  下町 that Edward Seidensticker wrote so lovingly about in his great book, High City, Low City. The stories are generally the same, with the same kind of characters. A literary guy, bored and revolted by the noisy modern world, hangs out with women in the demimonde. Listening to the quant sounds of the city like the traditional hoots, rings and shouts of pushcart vendors and artisans, enjoying traditional festivals, keeping above the concerns of the buying and selling of modernizing Japan. The stories pine for times past, late Tokugawa and early Meiji, the world of ukiyoe, the strumming of the samisen.

It’s all dreamy and elegiac, for readers who were there only in former lives. And better read one at a time, in quiet moments during the fall. Readers who’ve visited Asakusa 浅草 or the grittier parts of Osaka like Juso 十三 or Dōtonbori  道頓堀 will get an extra kick.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Mount TBR #16

I read this book for the Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge.

The Trail to Ogallala – Benjamin Capps

Unlike the herculean characters and melodramatic plots of Louis L’Amour, Benjamin Capps (1922 -  2001) wrote about relatable characters and realistic situations.  This 1964 western tells the story of a cattle drive dogged by jittery cattle, natural phenomenon from cyclones to skunk stink, and man’s inability to get along with his fellow man due to his stubborn inability to admit inability.

Our hero is Billy Scott, determined to do well in his first experience at being trail boss. However, he agrees to become a hired hand when the boss' widow hires an ex-Confederate colonel as trail boss. The colonel hires a big dumb bastard as his second in command. Telling more of the story would spoil the surprises so I can only urge readers to read this superior western.

During World War II, Capps was trained as a navigator of a B-24 Liberator. He flew forty bombing missions in the Pacific and attained the rank of first lieutenant. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Capps enrolled in UT at Austin. He was graduated in 1948 with a B.A. and Phi Beta Kappa in English and in 1949 he received his masters in English. Clearly he was no stranger to painstaking research and this novel shows that he did his homework with regard to the challenges of cattle drives in the late 19th century. He coupled this reading with boyhood growing up on a ranch near Archer City, Texas, no doubt getting a sense of what recalcitrant creatures cows can be. Capps’ other notable books are Sam Chance, The White Man’s Road, and A Woman of the People.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Captain Pamphile

Captain Pamphile – Alexandre Dumas; tr. Andrew Brown, 1843911345

This is a novella by the author of The Three Musketeers. I read the first couple hundred pages of The Count of Monte Cristo about 40 years ago (I can’t believe it either), so reading about the adventures of the ruthless Captain Pamphile reminded me that Dumas had a high degree of vitality and imagination. As a storyteller, a master of animated narration, Dumas is hard to match. Also, like the colors and visuals in say, SpongeBob Squarepants, Dumas’ word paintings in its settings were so vibrant, so tangible, that I can forgive improbabilities and allusions I’ll never understand.

Captain Pamphile, a Provençal sea captain, captures wild animals to sell to Parisians for their menageries of curious creatures. He takes the role of a beast to his crew and a ferocious predator to the animals in order to serve a market of idle fashionistas. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera said "Humanity's true moral test, its fundamental test, consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals." Dumas lets the narration of events make his point that cruelty, especially toward the vulnerable, is a noxious mix of greed, egotism, and willful stupidity.

Darkly funny episodes reek of the rough and tumble humor of late 18th and early 19th century. Coarse incidents will strike us modern readers as harsh, making us recall that the past really is a different country, with a different language and mores. But the violence also impressed me like an American tall tale, so improbable that it is impossible to get upset. It would be like getting outraged over Roadrunner blowing up Wile E. Coyote yet again.

Oxford World Classics and New York Review of Books reissue fairly well-known classics in beautiful editions with informative forwards and notes, but Hesperus Classics reissues minor works by great authors (like this one) or unjustly neglected works by forgotten authors. Reading in general but reading neglected fiction in particular appeals to the snob in me. I’ve read stories by Conan Doyle that don’t star Sherlock Holmes! And you haven’t! Nyah-nyah!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Back to the Classics: Mystery & Crime

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Classic Crimes - William Roughead

William Roughead (1870 – 1952, said “rockheed”) was a Scottish solicitor who attended and wrote about all the major trials in Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His writing pioneered the genre we know now as true crime. A young Dorothy Sayers devoured his long journalism about murders and trials. Later in life she called Roughead "the best showman who ever stood before the door of the chamber of horrors."

The New York Review of Books collected a dozen pieces in this volume. Any serious student of the late Victorians or Edwardians, of the true crime genre, or gender or cultural studies should read this book. Most of the cases involved the ingredient that George Orwell said was necessary for a “good murder” -  respectability - the desire to gain a secure position in life.

Plus, the writing style is resolutely old-fashioned. This makes the vocabulary quaint but surprisingly agreeable and the jokes under-stated but comical.

From The Audlamont Mystery:

Perennially hard up, he was ever hankering after money, “and for money,” says his wife, “he was prepared to sacrifice everything.” In 1886 he took over the lease of a large place, Cheyney Court. No sooner had he insured this mansion against fire than it was burnt down. Such accidents will happen in the best regulated families.

From Dr. Pritchard Revisited:

…It was further supposed that, as she lay late reading, she fell asleep, and the curtains caught fire from the gas jet. No sign of the supposititious volume was seen among the debris, nor, more remarkably, could any trace be found of a certain article of jewelry for which Dr. Pritchard claimed compensation under his policy. So, as the Insurance Company refused to pay, the Doctor suffered both in pocket and repute, for not only was he held to have made a fraudulent claim, but there were those who whispered that the girl had been drugged, otherwise she must at the first touch of fire have tried to save herself. Accidents will happen in the best regulated families, and no one who thought they knew the respectable practitioner believed him capable of so dastardly a deed. Verily, urbane manners and an attaching smile are valuable assets.

Just wonderful. The deliberately awkward “lay late reading.” “Gas jet” an engaging period artifact. The difficult term “supposititious” links coherently to the previous “supposed” but sends us reading gluttons to the online OED anyway, not an easy thing for a writer to do. Lots of passive voices as intricate as “was he held to have made” but the agents are always clear. “At the first touch of fire” is satisfyingly macabre. The factual observation about accidents approaches byword status and its repetition makes the writing feel as familiar as an oft-read Holmes story. “So dastardly a deed” makes us wonder if Roughead is  teasing us. Then, another dry observation of a fact of urban life then and now and the uses of “verily” and of “attaching” in its rare if not archaic sense of “attractive, insinuating” persuade us, as a matter of truth, his tongue is firmly, indubitably, in cheek.

Jump in here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day

The Jeffersonian Transformation: Passages From The “History” -  Henry Adams, with the introduction by Garry Wills

Henry Adams wrote a nine-volume history of the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison. Not being up to nine volumes, I read this abridgement that was published by the New York Review of Books in 2001. It contains the first six and last four chapters of the history. The first six chapters have been issued as a stand-alone book a couple times in the last fifty years or so, but generally Adams’ history has been neglected due to its length and inaccurate perceptions by critics.

The first six chapters present a concise social history of the US circa 1800. Adams’ thesis states that the US was regionally divided, intellectually stagnant, religiously bigoted and backward looking.  Adams includes his forebears the Adamses when he blames the Federalists for the sad state of the country they left behind.

When George Washington was saying in 1790, “I walk on untrodden ground,” both federalists and republicans were thinking the same thing. During the 1790s, the Federalists feared social disorder. They countered that sense of fear by legislating and administrating policies that were designed to bolster order and control. Because of the egregious Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, two of the most extreme examples along those lines, Henry Adams says, in essence, people felt that it was time for a change.

Given the Federalists seemed to represent overreaching tyrannical power from the center, it is easy to see why Jefferson thought that his rise to the Presidency was "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form."

This abridgement ends with the last four chapters of the History. Adams demonstrates that by 1817 the Republicans under Jefferson and Madison improved life in the US. Adams ends his book on an optimistic note, certain that the US was to have its place on the world stage.

In the introduction, Garry Wills says a culture loses a masterpiece by forgetting it or ignoring it. Critics ignored this pioneer historical work because they didn’t like Adams’ stance that Americans built an empire from the foundations laid down at the beginning of the 19th century. Adams’ writing is always lucid, which is not to say his sophisticated arguments are readily understood on the first reading.  Challenging reading for committed students of the topic.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mount TBR June Checkpoint

I read these books for the Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge.

June checkpoint: I signed up to read 48 books but have only read a third of that, with half the year gone. Sigh. Click the title to go to the review.

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
Posted: January 21

Mr Campion and Others – Margery Allingham
Posted: February 22

My Country and My People – Lin Yutang
Posted: March 11

A Murder of Quality - John le Carré
Posted: March 20

A History of Japan, 1615-1867 - Sir George Sansom
Posted: March 29

Patty/Tania – Jerry Belcher
Posted: April 7

American Heiress- Jeffery Toobin
Posted: April 16

Shieks and Adders – Michael Innes
Posted: April 28

All My Yesterdays – Edward G. Robinson
Posted: May 4

Many Happy Returns -  Patricia Moyes
Posted: May 16

The Reverse of the Medal – Patrick O’Brian
Posted: May 19

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness – Erle Stanley Gardner
Posted: June 1

The Letter of Marque – Patrick O’Brian
Posted: June 4

Owls Don’t Blink – A.A. Fair
Posted: June 17

Murder by the Book – Rex Stout
Posted: June 29

Who has been your favorite character so far?
Without doubt, my favorite characters in fiction are Jack Aubrey, Steven Maturin, and their supporting cast.

Have any of the books you read surprised you?
For a book written very quickly Patty/Tania was well-written, for journalism anyway.

Title Scrabble: Mammas & Mommas