Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Mount TBR #42

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Personal note: When this book was published in 1985, the reviews made me want to read it, because I was interested in mass media's effects on culture. But I was wrapping up grad school and looking for work overseas, so I had no time. I finally got around to it after finding this anniversary edition at a used book sale. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business – Neil Postman

In early 2016, a TV character sang to his pregnant wife Paul Anka’s June 1974 hit “You’re Having My Baby.” 40 years ago – the wake of Roe v. Wade - the sexist undertone of “my baby” versus “our baby” was not, I recall vividly, unnoticed. The National Organization for Women gave Anka the "Keep Her in Her Place" award for that year. Nowadays this controversy is so forgotten, and 30-something TV writers and actors and producers so oblivious to the meanings and tones of words, it is as if the last 40 years haven't happened in terms of either mindless sexism or relish for the slushy sentiment of pop music.

Given how little things have changed, then, why the hell not read a complaint about television’s effect on culture written in the middle 1980s? Especially since digital communication is TV on steroids....

The thesis of this book is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1985. Postman’s thesis is that entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. Babble drowns anything worth knowing in an information glut, as TV is not suited to thinking and talking, which is not a performing art. Good TV requires a performing art because people watch TV for dynamic images and strong emotions. The nature of American TV has developed along lines that accommodate the way human beings want to watch TV; that is, TV is not a medium for education or propaganda but for endless amusement, incessant distraction.

Visual- and entertainment-oriented TV has degraded public discourse in education, business, religion, and politics. Postman is not against junk on TV but argues that TV is at its worst when it is trying to be serious. He cites televised presidential debates as an example of the impossibility of discussing complex issues like peace in the Middle East in three minutes for Candidate A, while Candidate B has a minute to rebut. Postman is not claiming anybody systematically conspired to make TV technology a tool of suppression of literate or complex discourse in say, political campaigns and commercials. It just part and parcel of how we Americans use technology with humdrum inattention – like popping a smartphone in a toddler’s hand to make him shut up and then wondering why the little tyke seems unable to look anybody in the eye.

Indeed, things have change little in the last 40 years. We still live an age of information glut. We have flooded our culture with technologies that fill our lives with information, mainly about people, places, and events and situations that are out of our control. We are at the point where our dealing with too much information, so much it leads to a situation of meaninglessness. With poor skills at critical thinking and identifying illogical thinking, many people have no basis for judging what information is useful or useless. Media does not categorize itself as worthwhile or worthless so people get lost due to sheer noise. How to help people get meaning and truth has become an urgent problem. Ironically, near the end of this book Postman speculates computer technology may help people sort out the relevant from the irrelevant, but we all have seen how that has worked out.

The book is a well-written complaint, written in the hope that the vitality of America can contradict Aldous Huxley’s prophecy in Brave New World that our freedom is lost because of our immense propensity to be distracted. Readers looking for a book with intellectual heft and decorum won’t be disappointed by this slim book. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mount TBR #41

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Belton Estate – Anthony Trollope

This stand-alone novel was serialized in the Fortnightly Review from May 1865 to January 1866. It was published in three volumes, to Trollope’s anger, since he wanted it in only two volumes. Greedy damn publishers!

The Belton estate is entailed to Charles Amedroz. Charles parties like it’s 1899 in London while his father and sister Clara in rural Somerset sit home and worry. Debt and humiliation and one too many blistering hangovers drive Charles to do away with himself. The entail discriminates in favor of males of course and passes the legacy on to Will Belton, well-off Norfolk farmer, paragon of hearty manliness, as spontaneous and down to earth as he could be.

Father Bernard Amedroz is a comic neurotic who feels it “quite heartless” for Will to be wanting to visit Belton, express his condolences, and offer to help his relations.

Everything that everybody did around him he would call heartless. The man pitied himself so much in his own misery, that he expected to live in an atmosphere of pity from others; and though the pity doubtless was there, he misdoubted it. He thought that Farmer Stovey was cruel in that he had left the hay-cart near the house, to wound his eyes by reminding him that he was no longer master of the ground before his own hall door. He thought that the women and children were cruel to chatter so near his ears. He almost accused his daughter of cruelty, because she had told him that she liked the contiguity of the hay-making. Under such circumstances as those which enveloped him and her, was it not heartless in her to like anything? It seemed to him that the whole world of Belton should be drowned in woe because of his misery.

During the visit, impetuous Will naturally falls in love with distant cousin Clara whose spirit and intelligence attract him. Clara, however – always a looming “however” in a Trollope love story – has decided to marry the more eligible but dull Capt. Frederic Aylmer, an MP though not the first son.

Aylmer’s mama takes a scalding dislike to Clara, seeing as how penniless no-name Clara brings neither money nor title to the marriage with Fred. Besides the calculated snubbing, the Aylmer style is cold, formal, and stifling, not a clan that the self-respecting Clara could possibly fit into.

Clara is also in a bad position because her aunt has not left her a shilling but granted her entire estate to Capt. Aylmer. The aunt has, in fact, extracted a death-bed promise from the Captain to ask Clara to marry him. Trollope calls the aunt, “one of those women who have always believed that their own sex is in every respect inferior to the other.” Clara has religious differences with her low church Aunt which she has not been shy about expressing to her aunt, feeling it would be hypocritical to hide her convictions.

The reviewers bashed this story when it was put between covers in 1866. In print a young Henry James called it “stupid.” Always modest about his writing skills like Somerset Maugham, Trollope himself bowed to critical opinion and said in his autobiography, “It will add nothing to my reputation as a novelist.” In our day, readers seem to concur, with only two reviews by hard-core book challenge readers like us (here and here). Per my unsystematic observations at countless used book sales and stores since the early 1970s, I’ve seen this book only once.

Snobbish to read what virtually nobody else reads, I snapped up The Belton Estate and read it. Only to find the plot minimal, the comedy negligible, and the characters type-cast. Everybody’s motive is sensible (if awkward at times), their behavior plausible. Trollope goes out on a limb by encouraging us readers to sympathize with Mrs. Askerton, who left a hopeless drunk of a husband in India, lived with a man as his mistress for five years, then married the man when her husband finally drank himself to death. Trollope also sympathizes with the lot of Clara, who is boxed in by conventions of law and custom that force her into poverty and a wretched life in which she can bring no benefit to anybody. There are some very good passages, like this one that kicked off Chapter 25:

Clara felt herself to be a coward as the Aylmer Park carriage, which had been sent to meet her at the station, was drawn up at Sir Anthony Aylmer's door. She had made up her mind that she would not bow down to Lady Aylmer, and yet she was afraid of the woman. As she got out of the carriage, she looked up, expecting to see her in the hall; but Lady Aylmer was too accurately acquainted with the weights and measures of society for any such movement as that. Had her son brought Lady Emily to the house as his future bride, Lady Aylmer would probably have been in the hall when the arrival took place; and had Clara possessed ten thousand pounds of her own, she would probably have been met at the drawing-room door; but as she had neither money nor title,—as she in fact brought with her no advantages of any sort, Lady Aylmer was found stitching a bit of worsted, as though she had expected no one to come to her. And Belinda Aylmer was stitching also,—by special order from her mother. The reader will remember that Lady Aylmer was not without strong hope that the engagement might even yet be broken off. Snubbing, she thought, might probably be efficacious to this purpose, and so Clara was to be snubbed.

“Weights and measures of society” – too right, Mr. Trollope. In the end, though, the novel is run of the mill. Near the end I was reminded of Wilkie Collins’ formula, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” Brought home was the truth that Trollope, like Erle Stanley Gardner, was operating a fiction factory, churning out serials in a time when print was the main outlet for thinking entertainment.

When the resulting fiction-artifact shines and smoothly ticks by giving us the rush a good novel gives, we feel no misgivings being satisfied consumers of it. But when product fails to sparkle due to flat prose or stretched lengths, reader patience is taxed and developments such as Clara’s letter to “brother” Will just seem capricious. “Tarnation, perverse Lily Dale again.” As I read the last quarter of The Belton Estate, I wondered to myself, “What lack in me, what sloth of mind, keeps me turning the pages to discover the fates of these people, fates I can guess tolerably easily and won’t remember by Christmas.” I never thought such a self-accusatory thing near the ends of The Last Chronicle of Barset or He Knew He was Right

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bennington Battle Day, 2017

Bennington Battle Day is a state holiday in Vermont to honor of the Battle of Bennington, which took place during the Revolutionary War in 1777. It was the first victory of the colonials of the war.

Common Sense – Thomas Paine

Born in England in 1737, Thomas Paine was born relatively poor, but even with only a grammar school education he was smart and fluent. In London, he attended public lectures about current affairs and met Benjamin Franklin. Like many bright rootless people, Paine hoped for better prospects in the colonies. Franklin wrote a letter of recommendation for Paine, which was a generous act in an age where testimonials opened doors in faraway places. Franklin referred Paine to his son-in-law who introduced him into Pennsylvania society. He became the editor of Pennsylvania Magazine and wrote about the possibility and opportunity of independence from the mother country when almost nobody else had reached that point of thinking.

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, Paine drew the conclusion that the aims of the colonial revolt had to extend beyond unfair taxation in order to include full independence. Dr. Benjamin Rush urged him to write a pamphlet but discouraged him from using the words “independence” and “republicanism,” advice that he utterly ignored. He wrote for the common man so the argument is not subtle or scholarly. The simple style and easy word choice were powerful enough to convert people’s thinking toward independence or at least provide natural rights arguments for people who were inclining that way.

He put his ideas into a pamphlet Common Sense. By January, 1776, it had become a best-seller, selling over 120,000 in the first few months after it was released. Not bad for a man who had been in the country only a little over a year.

Published in July 1776, he demonstrates the shallow stupidity of monarchial tyranny, hereditary privilege, patronage, and corruption. His irreverence was effective, calling William the Conqueror, “a French bastard.” His scorn is scathing when he asserts, “And as a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.”

To Paine, since the English Constitution lacked legitimacy, then it naturally followed that independence  was the obvious choice. In the second part, he related what kind of government the Americans could construct. In stirring language he says that colonists could launch a democratic revolution all over the world. It’s not hard to see why his arguments persuaded people to look at their issues in new ways.
Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART. Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America, is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven.
Paine bragged it was the best seller of all time. JohnAdams, however, didn’t like section on the organization of government, which he thought too democratical. Adams called Common Sense “a crapulous mass,” which is about what we would expect from a thinker who dismissed Plato’s Republic as mere “vaporizing.” It is a fact that Common Sense focused thinking and conversation on independence the summer of 1775, a topic either never spoken of or spoken of in whispers because it was treason.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Mount TBR #40

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A History of Japan, Volume II: 1334-1615 - Sir George Sansom

The three centuries covered represent an era among the most troubled in Japanese history. In 1333 the Emperor Go-Daigo restored imperial power after knocking off the Kamakura Shogunate which was established in 1192 by Minamoto Yoritomo. But the Kenmu imperial restoration was short-lived. An irreconcilable conflict between the court aristocracy and the warrior class emerged with new struggles that ended with the Ashikaga, a branch of the Minamoto, who rebuilt the shogunal government establishing its headquarters in the Muromachi district of Kyoto.

But the new Ashikaga government failed to deal with the forces that made it the weakest of the three military governments of the times. The increased power of the great feudal lords, or daimyo, who established and maintained troops in their territories by employing warrior, or samurai, vassals, seriously jeopardized stability. On the one hand, the lords refrained from paying taxes to the shogunate and on the other, they gradually increased their territories at the expense of weaker neighbors. The same governmental officials who were responsible for controlling the provinces on behalf of the shogun became local military leaders and feudal lords.

The struggles that the feudatories took up in order to seize the most territory reduced the country to anarchy in a short time. As the daimyōs feuded among themselves in the pursuit of power in the decade-long and bloody Ōnin War, loyalty to the Ashikaga grew increasingly stressed, until it erupted into open warfare in the Sengoku (country at war) period. Reinstatement of order was the task of the three towering figures of Japanese history: Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 -1616). Sansom clearly and interestingly covers the military movements which ended on October 21, 1600 with the Battle of Sekigahara, the decisive clash that brought about the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Meanwhile, the Europeans had arrived in the Japanese archipelago. In 1543 some Portuguese merchants landed at Tanegashima. They introduced Japan's first firearms, which revolutionized the traditional techniques of war in Japan. Jesuit missionaries, led by Francesco Saverio, bravely undertook Christian preaching in the country. Nobunaga was impressed with Jesuit learning and manners and with his benign approval the Jesuits converted thousands of Japanese people in all walks of life. Hideyoshi did not impede Jesuit efforts until one evening in 1587 when he unaccountably banned Jesuit missionary work and placed restrictions on their movement and work.

In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun and established the seat of government in Edo (today Tokyo). He imposed absolutism on the daimyo and oppressed the peasants unmercifully but assured the imperial court its honorary prerogatives at the same time.

Sansom was writing for both the specialist and the thinking lay reader. He organizes clearly and condenses essential events of politics, sociology, and economics. His interpretations are careful and rest on scholarship at a high level. Sansom’s critical insight combines a vast erudition and an extraordinary ability to write lucidly. I recommend this book to the reader seriously interested in the topic.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Death and the Pleasant Voices

Death and the Pleasant Voices - Mary Fitt

ISBN-10: 0486246035

Mary Fitt was the pen-name of Kathleen Freeman (1897 - 1959), a British classcist. She will bring to mind another British professor – J.I.M. Stewart who wrote as Michael Innes – because, though she employs no jocosely recondite vocabulary, she expects readers to keep up with Latin tags, French idioms, and allusions from Euripedes and Lewis Carroll. Like Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote mysteries as Nicholas Blake, she was a professor of classics, so her themes are accordingly Greek:  character  is destiny and fate is implacable.

In Death and the Pleasant Voices (1946), she focuses not on plot or puzzle, but, as she said in an interview, on “people, their pleasant or queer or sinister possibilities.” This is apparently the tenth book with her series hero Inspector Mallet, but he does nothing beyond questioning people in preparation for the inquest.  We readers walk along with the main character Jake Seaborne as he haltingly makes his way among members of a family driven by avarice and animosity. They are wrangling over the inheritance of a large country house. None of them admirable, they come off as deceptive and grasping as mean carnies.

The murder does not come until half-way through the book, but this balanced by the detailing for the interplay among the characters for the remainder. They are a pair of twins, who expected to inherit but did not; a poor relation who attended the dying days of the twins’ father; the callous Aunt and cranky Uncle; and finally the family doctor who has a thing for one of the twins and alcohol.

Because of the lack of detection and focus on character instead of the puzzle, I can’t regard this mystery as a paragon of the golden age of mysteries.  The interest lies in the surprising characters. I had to finish it to see where they ended up. In fact, the climax seemed inevitable, like a good Greek tragedy should.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Purple Heart Day, 2017

Acts of War:  Behavior of Men in Battle – Richard Holmes

This is an interesting book not only about the behavior of men in combat and its after effects, but also about basic training, male identity, comradeship, homesickness, and the preoccupations of most soldiers, i.e., when the next chance for warmth, food, sleep, tobacco, alcohol and sex are coming.
Holmes, an historian with a military background, gathers data from memoirs, interviews with vets, and the popular press. 

The soldiers are mainly British and American, from the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Falklands, which was a recent conflict when the book was published in 1989. One drawback is that he uncritically applies the work of Freud, Jung and LeBon (of crowd psychology fame) to the subject, which nowadays is a sure way to induce shrugs and eye-rolling and the cool response, "Possibly" from scholarly types and readers that have read of stack of militaria.

Generally, this is a readable book that I have no reservations recommending to readers who enjoyed John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, or Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Mount TBR #39

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Three Doors to Death – Rex Stout

Mystery writer Rex Stout made handsome change writing about 30 novelettes for The American Magazine, a slick nicely illustrated weekly that lasted from 1904 to 1956.  Featuring his series hero PI Nero Wolfe, he wrote "Man Alive" for the December, 1947 issue, "Omit Flowers" for November, 1948, and "Door to Death" for June, 1949. Then Bantam Paperbacks collected the novellas in cheap paperback re-issues.

In "Man Alive" a young, up-and-coming fashion designer consults Wolfe after she spots her uncle, in disguise and sporting a new beard, attending a show for her new line. This would not be so weird if everyone understood that a year before the uncle had topped himself by jumping naked into a hot spring geyser in Yellowstone Park (Stout could be gruesome – even if playfully so - despite the predominantly female readership of The American Magazine). Wolfe’s legman, Archie Goodwin, is often deputized to attend outlandish events like flower shows so he ends up going to another fashion show with the mission to identify and nab the father. The inevitable killing occurs. In the classic fashion, Wolfe gathers all the suspects in a room, and their alibis notwithstanding, gets to the bottom of things. This is a very satisfying story.

In "Omit Flowers," Wolfe’s oldest friend Marko Vukcic prevails upon Wolfe to take up the cudgels for Virgil Pompa. Once an excellent chef, Pompa was seduced by the big bucks to become a high level manager for a chain of family restaurants called Ambrosia. The founder of the chain has been murdered. The cops have nailed Pompa, but Marko is sure it was a member of the founder’s family, who had much to gain. The family is a lot of fun: grasping, devious, unlovely. The strong plot, though, is undermined by a slow pace and gloomy tone.

"Door to Death" is the best of trio even though it is not really a detective story. Wolfe’s orchid guy Theodore Horstmann has to leave the brownstone to do caregiving for his sick mother. A desperate Wolfe must leave the residence and brave a car ride to remote Westchester in order to tempt a young botanist to come work for him temporarily. He and Archie discover the corpse of a young woman in the greenhouse. They then question various people to get the young orchid guy off the hook, since the vic was his trampy fiancée. Commenting on the sad single-mindedness of some middle-aged men, a rustic says to Wolfe “I don't know why -- when a man starts turning gray why don't he realize the whistle has blowed and concentrate on something else? Take you, you show some gray. I'll bet you don't dash around crowing and flapping your arms.” Archie reports, “I tittered without meaning to. Wolfe gave me a withering glance."

For me, there is no better mystery than a Nero Wolfe novelette by Rex Stout. It is ideal for the beach and deck in summer, for sheer reading pleasure.