Tuesday, February 28, 2017

European RC #5

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

Spies of the Balkans – Alan Furst

This spy novel is set in Greece in the perilous months running up to the Nazi invasion in April, 1941. The story stars Costa Zannis, a police detective who heads the office of sensitive cases. That is, with his brains and tact, he handles delicate crimes involving the rich, the famous, the important. A ladies man, he has relationships with an old GF, a British spy, and the wife of ruthless tycoon. We readers need the romantic angle as a break from the tension of Nazi cruelty and our rueful previous knowledge that Greece is doomed to Nazi occupation.

Zannis becomes involved in three secret operations. He helps a society woman in Berlin smuggle out Jewish people who have to escape or be interned in concentration camps. The British notice that Zannis has experience with escape routes so they pressure him into going to Paris to smuggle an important scientist back to Greece. The British also back an operation in which Zannis is sent to Belgrade to assist in the (historically accurate) coup by a group of pro-Western Serb-nationalist Royal Yugoslav Air Force officers commanded by General Dušan Simović.

The settings all have evocative details of Salonika, Budapest, Berlin, and Paris. Furst is also effective at getting across the mundane details of ordinary people doing their best in trying circumstances - such as the fine scene of his family packing to flee and the reaction of their worried sheepdog Melissa. The irrepressible S. Kolb, British agent, shows up in this one playing the ghost in the machine that he did so well in Dark Voyage and The Foreign Correspondent.

I recommend Furst’s novels highly but don’t read them too close together, otherwise the formula is a little too obvious.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mount TBR #7

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 Natural History of Nonsense - Bergen Evans

Like Martin Gardner’s classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, this 1946 book debunks a range of folk beliefs, old wives’ tales, revolting prejudices, and cockamamie ideas held by both the expert and lay members of modern society on topics concerning flora, fauna, race, physiology and a host of other subjects. The organization and content are lucidly written; the tone smart, urbane, witty. Many of these pieces in fact were written for the literate readers of The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker and the sophisticated readers of Vogue and Town and Country. Evans was an English professor at Northwestern and clearly committed to plain writing and logical thinking. “[D]emocracy is essentially anti-authoritarian,” he says, “it not only demands the right but imposes the responsibility of thinking for ourselves.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Mount TBR #6

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.

Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads - Joel Best

The author defines “fads” as institutional vogues, not crazes such as pokemon go or juju on the beat. So readers that work in schools at all levels may be interested in his observation that administrators in education don’t feel like “real managers” so they are susceptible to fads from the private sector. 

The search for the one true panacea for deep-seated educational problems leads to a dissipation of energy and effort in the schools, not to mention a significant waste of time and money. Such waste and resulting demoralization and apathy due to management fads often occur in the private sector, but “failure has no father” so we don’t hear obituaries about Six Sigma, business process reengineering, matrix management, management by consensus, total quality management, core competency, management by objectives, and searching for excellence. 

It is because educators don’t know about the skeletons in the management fad closets that they feel like amateurs compared to the steely-eyed captains of the private sector. Anybody with any sense stops listening when they hear some rich man who wants to be king is going to “run government like a business.”

Best argues from examples that there are three stages to institutional fads. First, a problem is identified and a new solution devised, both forming a TED Talk-type narrative  story to be sold by slick promoters to sell books and extrovert careerists within the organization looking to get ahead. After all, there are livings to be made in the advancement of fads. Second, momentum builds as the narrative spreads, because of endless American-style optimism and fear of the career-sinking reputation as a stick in the mud and not a team-player. Third, after countless hours and dollars, the narrative is let go because of disappointing results, staleness, or the next big thing comes along.

Best provides the basic advice that we Doubting Thomases already know, either by temperament or bitter experience. Don’t forget what happened last time and remind other people – tactfully – of lessons learned. Demand astonishing evidence for astonishing claims. Always insist on persuasive evidence. Don’t fear being left behind. Be alert, especially to signs that people are jumping off the bandwagon.

Readers who will like this book include teachers and staff in education and students in fields like communication, sociology, anthropology, history, and, of course, English, because English majors should know a little about everything and cultivate a skeptical frame of mind.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

European RC #4

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

German title: Der Richter und sein Henker
Year published: 1950
Year Englished: 1954, by Cyrus Brooks

The Judge and His Hangman - Friedrich Dürrenmatt

It all starts with the discovery by a constable of a police detective’s corpse, in a car parked near a Swiss village. Commissioner Bärlach, an old, experienced detective takes the case despite ill health - he has been plagued with stomach pain that requires a surgery he’s been procrastinating. When Bärlach discovers that the murdered man had assumed an alias and attended parties at the house of a certain Herr Gastmann in the village, Bärlach’s investigation is suddenly sabotaged by his superior Dr. Lucius Lutz. Lutz was put off by Gastmann's lawyer who implied that Gastmann was getting protection from the highest levels of the Swiss government, which in turn was being pressured by politicians and arms manufacturers who do not want their lucrative business disturbed.

By hinting at these kinds of cozy dodgy relationships in the establishment, the author challenges the complacent majority to think about whether Switzerland was genuinely neutral in WWII. During the war, the Swiss authorities refused normal diplomatic protection for Jewish Swiss citizens in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries. Swiss banksters made it needlessly easy for the Nazis to loot their victims' assets. Switzerland's government granted generous credits to the criminal regimes of Germany and Italy and offered them financial privileges. After the war, bankers were not cooperative with surviving heirs that were trying to find and claim the accounts of their murdered relatives.

Anyway, Bärlach quickly realizes that Gastmann was an old opponent, who, as a young man, had murdered an innocent man in cold-blood, on a bet. Since then, Bärlach had been following this man, who always took on new aliases, but could never pin anything on him. Bärlach realizes that he must continue his investigations in order to produce a just end which cannot be reached in legal ways.

Thus, given the moral and ethical failures of the authorities and captains of the banking industry, the author examines the character of a disillusioned individual who does not battle the ordinary unfolding of events with a bureaucratic protocol but with his own sense of right and wrong. Bärlach is convinced that criminals are caught when the police can exploit the criminal’ mistakes in planning, executing, and covering up a crime. Crooks are humans and humans are fallible because nobody - however fiendishly clever-  can predict how reality will turn out in the wake of a crime. His nemesis Gastmann, however, argues that the chaotic “entanglement of human relationships” lends itself to unsolvable crimes and lack of proof that could stand in a court of law.

Again because it is very short, it is worthwhile to read it twice: the first time as a crime novel for the sake of untangling the plot’s the surprising twists and the second time as a jumping off point for curious philosophical questions and issues in cognitive psychology, if that is the reader’s bent.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Mount TBR #5

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.

She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction - Mary Sojourner

The shocking results of November, 2016 has driven me to read books about cognitive psychology, so that I can mull over the question, why do people do irrational things against their own interest? One reason is addiction.

This well-written self-help book is about compulsive gambling, which is an addiction because it messes with brain chemistry and renders arguments about “moral failings” and “will power” irrelevant and unhelpful. Not comforting is the fact that among all the addicts of this and that, gambling addicts are the most likely to relapse.  Sojourner herself is in recovery from compulsive gambling, so obviously her own experience brings insight to the research that she reports.

The book is mostly taken up by the dreadful stories told by members of the support group called Scheherazade’s Sisters. These women have been through the mill, experiencing physical, mental, and financial hardships brought on by compulsive gambling. I daresay that people who have had similar experiences will have many head-nodding, “youbetcha” moments when they read these narratives.

Sojourner takes the role of the teacher and facilitator of the group, providing them and us the readers with information about physiological, emotional, and social factors contributing to the behavior. She also describes the morally disreputable tactics of the gaming industry to get people in the chairs, especially in front of the slots. The smartest people in the world work devise ingenious ways to extract money from certain types of people utilizing the effect of behaviorist psychology on the chemistry of the brain. It’s sobering that human beings can be so cynical and avaricious as to screw with people’s brains like this.

As a self-help book, it is not written for hard-core readers like us. Instead, it is written for people who don’t usually read. So to reach the majority who see reading as an unavoidable ordeal and boring chore, the prose style is extremely easy and direct. For instance, the relatively difficult information about brain chemistry and psychodynamics is listed in bullet points.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Classics #4

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen (1813)

Delightful. The romantic comedy with a witty bite is told from the point of view of Elizabeth Bennet, the smart sister. Lizzy is her own person, for sure: she punctures the pompous manner of Mr. Collins; she triumphantly rejects the haughty Mr. Darcy; she is beguiled by a wily man and forced into introspection; she is mortified by her mother’s silliness; she stands up to Lady de Burgh’s insolence.  Her older sister Jane is the pretty one, angelic in her optimism and tolerance. The two youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia, are giddy and boy-crazy. The middle sister, Mary, a great reader, talks like a book. Lizzy’s father is an indolent husband and father, happiest when not hassled and sarcastic when amused by the foibles of others. Her mother is an idiot, a wonderful comic character. Elizabeth’s love interest is first Mr. Wickham and then Mr. Darcy. The cast of secondary characters is large, but delineated with much skill. Such is the clarity of Austen’s writing that we readers never lose track of the ways characters are connected to each other. Austen passes blunt judgements on her characters’ follies and empty-headed worship of money, class, position, property, and public opinion, all of which can be lost quickly through lack of sense or luck. Austen examines the undermining effects on social life of both willful deception and sitting on home truths in the misplaced hopes that the impudent will somehow reform themselves. Interestingly, she also has us readers think about how first impressions are often as strong as they are wrong. It is mind-boggling that this ground-breaking realistic novel was written by an author who was working with influences such as gothic romances (Frances Burney), picaresque novels (Henry Fielding) and adventure novels (Walter Scott). Hers is an artistic achievement – indeed, a marvel - on the level of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, as Austen could not look to worthwhile models of witty novels of domestic manners, set in narrow social worlds. Any reader that likes Anthony Trollope’s romcoms with a little heft will like Pride and Prejudice. But I think Austen's bluntness in describing characters puts her in the 18th century satirical style with Fielding and Smollet.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Classics #3

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Domestic Manners of the Americans – Frances Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s mother took a trip to the United States in 1827. She had come to join her friend Frances Wright's Nashoba Commune, whose goal was to educate slaves for freedom, near Memphis. After she saw the hard living conditions in the wilds of Tennessee, she changed her plan to making badly-needed money with a retail shop in Cincinnati. Her husband was chronically ill back in England and she had five older children to support.  During her time in the US, note she was not a tourist or student, but a sojourner - one who resides for a lengthy period in another culture for professional reasons. She was therefore able to see the heart of the new culture, not just the skin and brain.

She did not plan to write a book, but she did keep a notebook of her observations on life in the US. The store in Ohio failed, however, so she decided to monetize her notebook. The book she produced is well worth reading, though her observations are filtered through her lack of success (which she does not discuss). The tone is a acrimonious, even vituperative, but the wit has verve and the ring of truth. On American table manners:

The total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured, the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation; the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife, soon forced us to feel that we were not surrounded by the generals, colonels, and majors of the old world; and that the dinner hour was to be any thing rather than an hour of enjoyment.

She was certainly one for refinement, deploring the Americans' "coarse familiarity.” A Tory, she has little use for “I’m just as good as you are” Jacksonian, common man democracy:

And here again it may be observed, that the theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining-room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard, greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onions and whiskey. Strong, indeed, must be the love of equality in an English breast if it can survive a tour through the Union.

But, probably due to her unhappy experience doing business with Americans, she gets in forceful jabs:

Yet the Americans declare that "they are the most moral people upon earth." Again and again I have heard this asserted, not only in conversation, and by their writings, but even from the pulpit. Such broad assumption of superior virtue demands examination, and after four years of attentive and earnest observation and enquiry, my honest conviction is, that the standard of moral character in the United States is very greatly lower than in Europe. Of their religion, as it appears outwardly, I have had occasion to speak frequently; I pretend not to judge the heart, but, without any uncharitable presumption, I must take permission to say, that both Protestant England and Catholic France show an infinitely superior religious and moral aspect to mortal observation, both as to reverend decency of external observance, and as to the inward fruit of honest dealing between man and man.

We can easily imagine that her book causes howls of dismay and derision in the United States after it was published. In her own time, Charles Dickens said, "I am convinced that there is no writer who has so well and so accurately (I need not add entertainingly) described America." It was a best seller in both the UK and the US. Later in the 19th century Mark Twain said, "[Trollope] was merely telling the truth and this indignant nation knew it. She was painting a state of things which did not disappear at once. It lasted to well along in my youth, and I remember it."

The prose is workman-like, straightforward enough to read quickly. She organizes the book both chronologically and topically (the camp meeting chapter is incredible). I recommend this book to readers into antebellum America, travel writing and amateur ethnography. Also, to those who would dare to compare religious fanaticism, unapologetic materialism, shaky commitment to probity and ethics, sloppy manners and unconscious conceit then and now.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

European RC #3

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

French title: Le Président
Year published: 1958
Year Englished: 1961, by Daphne Woodward

The Premier - Georges Simenon

Ex-Premier Augustine, who is designated only by his first name throughout, has retired to his small estate of Les Ebergues after a political defeat so crushing that he swore never to set foot in Paris again. Although surrounded by police protection and a small but vigilant staff, he lives in both physical and psychological isolation. Of the people he grew up with, he is one of three still above ground. Since at 82 his health is out of his control and death is always hovering, he puts his individual freedom of judgement above everything. He undertakes to write his memoirs, which he hides around the library like a child who has scrawled “Sometimes I hate mama” on a memo pad and jams into the recesses of a couch.

Afraid to admit it to himself, he fears the loss of all influence in the political life of the country. He perceives, however, a glimmer of hope brought about by a potential change of coalition government that may bring his former chief of staff, Chalamont, to the summit of power. Augustine has kept a confession in Chalamont’s own hand, one so compromising that Chalamont would have to withdraw his bid and end his career in public life in ignominy. The climax of the novel is Augustine waiting for Chalamont to visit and make a desperate appeal, thus assuring Augustine, in his vanity, that he can still make a difference in the destiny of France.

The non-Maigret novels are not for nothing called "hard novels" which have profound themes and grim conclusions. The world of politics is one filled with pettiness of mind and ambition, malicious betrayals, and, above all, mediocrity. This analysis of power, its undertones, its dark side and the less than ideal kind of people power attracts, is served up with writing always restrained and perfectly chiseled.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mount TBR #4

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.

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens – Susan A. Clancy

When mass delusions overcome the population – see November, 2016 – I run to the solace of cognitive psychology in order to think about why otherwise smart, kind, harmless people act in ways against their own interest, much less everybody else’s. So in the alien abduction context, given the derision they will face and the possible risks to their reputation and perhaps even employability, why would people claim that they were kidnapped by aliens?

In this slender summary of her research written for a lay but intelligent audience Dr. Clancy gives plausible reasons. She says that people don’t examine weird bruises after a night of troubled sleep the next morning and suddenly conclude that they were kidnapped by little grey men. It sometimes happens that the experience comes out of a dream or the terror that results from sleep paralysis. At other times, people who already kind of believe aliens exist and kidnap earthers for experiments are applying the scientific method: they explain their weird bruises, troubled sleep, and vague unease with the theory they were kidnapped by aliens. This fits the facts for them. Clancy also lucidly discusses the malleability of memory and how hypnosis and other “memory recovery” techniques can, and often do, create false memories that feel very real for the abductee.

She also discusses the kind of person who gets abducted. They are not attention hounds, nor are they bonkers. They are normal people, whose only oddness is their belief about being kidnapped by aliens. Tests indicate, however, that they are more imaginative and fantasy prone than the general population. They are also more creative (if indeed you believe that creativity can be reliably measured by surveys). They also score high on a trait called “schizotypy” which simply means that they are prone to odd beliefs and eccentric ways of thinking like magical thinking.

Oddly enough, in the last chapter she talks about how abductees were glad to have had their experience. They say it made them feel part of bigger universe and feel it gave their lives meaning. She makes the point that when scientific explanations are pitted against people’s notions of what feels right a.k.a their intuition or gut feeling, science loses. 

This is well-written book with personal asides, some dry humor, and comprehensible arguments. I recommend this to readers with an interest in skepticism, clear thinking, reason and logic, and expertise (i.e., into things so much out of fashion these days).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

European RC #2

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

An English Affair:  Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo - Richard Davenport-Hines

The Profumo affair was a British political scandal that came out of a brief sexual relationship in 1961 between John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in PM Harold Macmillan's Tory government, and Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old model who like to party. The first two-thirds of the book is a readable and fascinating description of the time, the post-WWII UK, with an emphasis on the middle 1950s and early1960s. The remainder, a blow by blow account of the affair, cover-up, or fall-out overwhelms with copious detail and the contempt a sapped reader feels for such deceitful types as high-level politicians.  

Davenport-Hines asserts that the strict socialist regulations of the immediate post-war years were to blame for recalcitrant rule breakers trying to get around investment-unfriendly red-tape. Money guys were looking to cash in on the construction boom and develop bombed out sites in the City and shopping complexes in the suburbs of cities. Mixed in with their avarice and power-hunger, of course, was the usual lust of middle-aged guys for young women. Like Roger Ailes, they were generally so misogynistic, oafish, and ugly that they needed money, power, and connections to meet and then set up party girls, models, and other would-be celebs in apartments. The story is all about what is bewildering about the species called the wealthy: that money and power and recognition are never enough, greedy men are always insatiable, they despise the people they con and cheat and use, they demand loyalty from the same subordinates that they would leave twisting in the wind.

But this book indicates that just about every man in a position of power in the public and private sectors were getting it on with younger, poorer girls and boys. John Profumo, the secretary of war, had enough smarts to skate through Harrow and Oxford where he made plenty of connections. He had a good WWII. He needed his breezy charm to balance what his fellow stupid conservatives called his Eye-tie name, which brought to mind women’s scent.

Christine Keeler came from terrible circumstances, coming to maturity in old railway car with no electricity, plumbing, or privacy. As a babysitter, she was routinely groped and fondled by fathers of the kids she sat. Her step-father’s sexual advances forced her to sleep with a knife under her pillow. She as desperate to get away from home and start leading a glamorous life. She started working in a nightclub in London where she met Mandy Rice-Davies. They got themselves into society through older men. They weren't angels but nobody deserves the treatment they had to endure.

Finally, as a writer for the right-wing magazine Spectator, Davenport-Hines takes predictable swipes at the left, but, to his credit, castigates the police and press for objectionable practices. The language used by the the papers is shocking in their anti-women venom.  Police procedures to demoralize and coerce persons of interest will disgust readers and frighten people who assume they live in a democracy, not a police state. Davenport-Hines also observes that the public itself fed this corruption with hypocritical attitudes and by purchasing the newspapers. Nobody get away unscathed in this brilliant and riveting overview of that time and place.