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Book Reviews

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami

Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home in the Nakano Ward of Tokyo because he hates his sculptor father. He escapes to Takamatsu, site of a quiet family library whose photo in a magazine appealed to him with its promise of anonymous, undisturbed, unlimited reading. On the way, he meets and sleeps with a girl a few years older, who may or may not be his long-lost sister. Once he finds the library, he meets Oshima, a calm and effeminate guy who may or may not actually be a girl. Oshima works for Miss Saeki, whose 15-year-old ghost entrances and seduces Kafka, who then winds up sleeping with Miss Saeki -- who may or may not be his long-lost mother.

Hooked yet? If not, there's a complementary narrative featuring gray-haired Nakata, the victim of World War II alien encounter that left him with the ability to speak with cats and not much else. The fates of Nakata and Kafka are entwined. One night, Nakata is kidnapped by Johnnie Walker (he of scotch fame) forces Nakata to stab him in order to prevent Johnnie from murdering more cats. Nakata is surprised that he has no blood on him after the brutal incident, but Kafka wakes up from a blackout hundreds of miles away with his shirt soaking in blood.

Nakata is also compelled to make his way to Takamatsu, enlisting the help of an exceedingly amiable truck driver named Hoshino. While cruising the pachinko palaces, Hoshino meets Colonel Sanders, who acts as pimp to hook him up with a hot philosophy student and then leads him to a sacred stone that controls all their destinies.

If you're intrigued enough to want answers to all the questions posed here, you won't find them in this book. It's a fun read, sometimes funny and occasionally a bit sad, and most appealing to readers who like a challenging setup, then to be released to form their own conclusions.

Monday, May 08, 2006

After the Quake
by Haruki Murakami

I've enjoyed Murakami's short fiction in The New Yorker so I picked up this short collection of six stories, all loosely connected to the earthquake that struck Kobe in 1995. Most are gracefully written, with a bit more magical realism than I had encountered in his stories before. But what I like most is the insider's perspective on contemporary Japan, the ways that it is a lot like America (surfers, bar flys, tourists) and the ways it is not (hierarchies, ancestor worship, lack of puritanism).

by Jared Diamond

This cheery tome painstakingly examines the behaviors that led some civilizations to ignore the warning signs that their most important resources were running out, and recklessly and relentlessly drive themselves to destruction. As with his better-known, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond's breadth of knowledge about the migrations and conquests of cultures throughout history and beyond the scope of most Western educations, provides him with a very comprehensive database on which to draw evidence to develop hypotheses. Here, the main hypothesis seems to be that a society's cultural identifiers tend to hinder its ability to adapt, even when faced with impending annhilation. Whether it was Easter Islanders cutting down the last big trees in their forests to make rolling platforms for moving those giant stone heads, or Christian Vikings on Greenland refusing to shift their diet from dairy to seafood because that was viewed as Inuit food, the evidence is presented time and again that cultural identity is stronger than survival instincts.

The path of the argument leads inevitably to our own place and time: many of us believe that it's short-sighted and a bit reckless to drive automobiles that pollute, and consume beyond what is easily replenished. But we also want to belong in the society we live in, and to shun cars and consumption would alienate us and our children from the mainstream, force us into a hippie life beyond the fringe. And so, we go along with the program. But an important lesson from Diamond's effort is this: this recklessness isn't a failing of Americanism. It is not that Americans are somehow more stubborn or short-sighted than other cultures -- which is the defensive posture that some folks take when asked to consume less. Diamond argues that this is universal human behavior, across many cultures and ages. It is a natural human condition to embrace cultural identifiers (whether a stone head on Easter Island, a struggling dairy farm on Viking Greenland, or a gas-guzzling Eurovan in 21st-century America) in spite of the clear evidence that to live differently would afford a better chance for long-term survival.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Where I Was From
by Joan Didion

Didion is from an old California family, and there's some nice storytelling in this book about life in the Sacramento Valley in the first half of the 20th century. It resonated with me: my family's been in Northern California since 1870, and I could almost see my mom and her sisters in some of the descriptions Didion gives of her family's life, road trips, careers.

But the middle section was confusing to me. She turns to attacking the suburb of Lakewood, and it struck me as out of place and somewhat elitist. Like many southern California towns, Lakewood was developed as a planned community to provide a home for the people who came to work in the aerospace and defense industry during the Cold War -- in this case, employees of McDonnell Douglas. Didion appears to be suggesting that this was an experiment to create an "owner class" out of a semi-peasant population (emigrated from "the midwest and border south states") who really didn't deserve to be owners. She dwells on a 1993 scandal involving something called the Spur Posse in Lakewood, a club of teenage boys who gained national attention on the tabloid shows after coercing and encouraging teenage girls to have sex with them -- big news that year, but uneventful in the scope of 20th century trends. Didion seems to cite this as evidence that the experiment to create an owner class somehow was a mistake and a failure, and she tries to blame the origin of the posse on the gradual decline of the defense industry in Southern California.

Seems like a bit of a stretch to me.... and comes off as elitist for someone with California farm roots back to the 1850s to suggest it's appropriate for her family to have migrated here early and claim its land around Sacramento and live in its large ranch houses, all claimed from the federal government, but somehow wrong for the World War II and Korean War vets who came to Lakewood in the 1950s on federal home loans to claim their little plot of land.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Emigrants
W.G. Sebald

Like the book that turned me onto Sebald, Austerlitz, this collection of four stories blends memoir, travel writing, and fiction styles to tell quiet little tales of people who left Germany during the 20th century. They're like dreams that you might have while lying in bed, sick on a winter afternoon -- disjointed domestic dramas that move from one self-exiled character to the next. The text is laid out with old, black-and-white photos and newspaper clippings that illustrate the stories. I wonder if Sebald found them at flea markets and then wrote the fictional stories around them. Sometimes a character looks different from one photo to another -- perhaps because of the passage of decades, or maybe because in reality they are two different, completely unrelated people.

Most of the stories one reads about exile from Germany because of World War II feature Jewish or other persecuted protagonists. But one of the most striking things about these stories is that it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between Jewish emigrants and other German emigrants. Sebald was not Jewish; his father fought for the Third Reich and he was born in the years just after World War II. But he grew up in a shattered and destitute country, and spent his life and career trying to come to grips with the cultural and national guilt borne by the Germans for their Holocaust crimes. The Germans who left Germany, before or after the War, seem as lost, as exiled, as the Jews who got out. And yet, even set against such loneliness and sadness, what makes it a compelling and enjoyable read is the beautiful wandering through European and American cities, countryside, and lives, especially in the years just before and after the Second World War. Sebald has either genuinely understood or vividly imagined the beautiful world that the war destroyed.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

This is part profile of Steven Levitt, a self-described rogue economist, and part a compendium of interesting anecdotes where Levitt feels that conventional wisdom is at odds with the facts. For example, he notes that parents might be hesitant to let their child play at a home where guns are in the house, but probably less likely to prevent them from visiting a house with a backyard pool -- even though kids have about 100 times greater chance of drowning in a pool than dying from a gunshot wound.

But I kept finding holes in his logic. For example, he looks at online dating ads and compares the percentage of ads in which people say they are tall or blond, then compares that to the general population. When he discovers that the percentages of people claiming those desirable attributes is much higher on the dating service, he assumes some people are lying to get dates. But just as likely -- more likely in my opinion -- is that the online dating service isn't a perfect sample of the general population. The people most likely to pursue blind dates, imo, are those that are rewarded by the process. In other words, when you meet up, the other person is pleased, you have a good time, you're encouraged to do this again. That would skew the blind dating population (of which online dating is a major subset) towards better-looking folks. If you advertise for "short, pudgy, girl seeks a date" you're unlikely to receive much encouragement -- just a guess. So you may stop using the service. In time, a sort of "survival of the fittest to date" would occur, skewing the population.

His musings are full of these kinds of gaps, but it's still an interesting read (or listen, in my case). Marred a bit by the aggrandizement of its subject. One of the best parts is the final section on baby names -- why black babies increasingly have names that white babies don't share, and how names move in fashion from highly educated parents, to upper class parents, down to the middle class and eventually to lower class names. (He cites Amber and Heather as two names that have made that slide over the past generation.)

Interesting that this was one of the top books of 2005, and considered in some lists a top business book. It's a fun read, but nothing to change policy over.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson

Bryson's reading of his book (listened on my iPod) is a terrific and entertaining presentation of a lot of physics, geology, biology, history of science, and theories on the development of the universe, earth, life and humans. His timing is perfect: just when you think you're about to drop out, he picks you up with an unexpected bit of humor or clever turn of words. Like when he's talking about the amount of potential atomic energy contained in every human body, equivalent to x number of Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, "assuming you knew how to release it, and really wished to make a point." It's no easy trick to convey physics in a way that laymen like me can not only understand but appreciate, but Bryson has really pulled it off.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A History of the World in Six Glasses
by Tom Standage

Neat concept for a book: dividing world history into six eras, based on the dominant drink in each period. Beer rules in Sumeria and Egypt, then wine ascends in Greek and Roman times, then a leap to the spirits that made the Age of Exploration possible and helped bring on the American Revolution. Then we switch from intoxicants to stimulants: coffee houses help usher in the age of capitalism, tea helps the English rule the globe, and Coca-Cola does the same for the Americans. Interesting note that for most of these (maybe with the exception of Coke), they were a safe alternative to water, which was generally less safe to drink. Fun book to read with lots of interesting anecdotes (he claims the term "limeys" originated because English sailors mixed lime juice with rum to drink on long voyages), but obviously nowhere near the depth of something like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
by Jane Dunn

Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I were both granddaughters of Henry Tudor (Henry VII). Four hundred years down the line, Elizabeth's rule looks as predestined and solid as the Tower of London. But at the time, she was viewed by many Catholics as an illegitimate pretender to the throne, given that her mother, Anne Boleyn, was Henry VIII's second wife, whom he married after dumping Catherine of Aragon and Catholicism -- both out of a combination of a desire to sire a son and lust for Anne Boleyn. So while Protestants prayed for Elizabeth's success and survival against Catholic enemies France and Spain, many Catholics in England and elsewhere in Europe would have preferred that Catholic Mary take over as queen.

Mary led a fascinating life: hid from Henry VIII as an infant, growing up in the French court betrothed to the dauphin, briefly queen of France, then a Queen of Scotland who led attacks on raiders on horseback (even while pregnant). Dunn writes about her intense charisma and vibrant sexuality, her lustiness, her physical beauty -- and contrasts with Elizabeth's solid primness, a necessary persona of a Protestant queen trying to establish her right to regality.

Elizabeth sheltered Mary when the Scots turned against her, held her safe ... and somewhat imprisoned in England for nearly 20 years. Too dangerous to let go. But Mary was addicted to adventure, and couldn't resist when Catholic conspirators convinced her to go along with a regicidal mutiny. England was a tough neighborhood in those days -- think Middle East today -- and Elizabeth eventually decided to have her treacherous cousin beheaded. The rest of Europe didn't much go for this Protestant pretender beheading Catholic queens, and Dunn paints it as one reason for Philip II's Spanish Armada.

An odd note: through all their years of correspondence, their intertwined lives, Elizabeth and Mary never met in person.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Crazy Horse
by Larry McMurty
Why this Indian, and not others, to have a giant mountain near Rushmore carved in effigy? Though he did well at Little Big Horn, there didn't seem much in this book to explain why Crazy Horse is thought of as a great and inspirational Lakota leader. McMurty wastes half the book arguing with other biographies of Crazy Horse -- which may be justified in a lengthier, more in-depth bio, but this is a Penguin Life, a short introduction not aimed at serious aficionados of Western history, but more likely the casual reader who wants to know who Crazy Horse was (like me). Was this point lost on the editors? (Read Feb. 04)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

His Excellency: George Washington
by Joseph Ellis
An interesting bio of the human character behind the face that adorns the $1 bill, marred significantly by Ellis' rightwing bent. Since Washington is seen as a demigod now, it's fun to read about him as a young man, striving for fame and fortune, blundering, acting pettily, being looked down upon by his superiors and the English. He's ambitious, though Ellis is proud to portray him as not as clever or wily as some other Founding Fathers, particularly the "Frenchified" Jefferson. Ellis harps on the divide in that elite clique between those who favor the stolid English (including Washington, except for a few years when he happened to be fighting them) and those who embrace France -- creating a not-too-subtle echo of the current campaign againts France (as a shorthand for 'anyone in the world who doesn't agree with us on Iraq'). I wanted to read a contemporary bio, and this one wasn't bad. But had Ellis been a bit less plain about his own political leanings, I would have enjoyed it much more. (Read April 2005)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Gertrude and Claudius
by John Updike
I've never read Hamlet, not even seen the films, so this was an unlikely choice for me. But I tend to like books that retell a popular story from the villain's point of view -- like Wicked. And I wanted something about Denmark to read while there. Updike's little romance about Hamlet's mother and her long infatuation and romance with her (arranged) husband's younger brother was better than I expected. Hamlet is a relatively minor character, an annoying and self-centered peripheral player. They move tentatively, over decades, from affection to lust to conspiracy, and Feng's (later Claudius) murder of Hamlet's father is a mostly impulsive act, depicted as a desperate gesture, equal parts fear and heroism -- and hardly anything of a coup.

Updike is such a good writer. He has a casual honesty, an uncanny ability to accurately describe the fickleness of the human character, the mixed motives that lead us to act, to lie. He's able to show how people can undertake something that looks dastardly to others but seems completely justified and innocent to the actor -- very intelligent and refreshing to read.

Pending reviews:
5.05 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe/CS Lewis
3.05 Old Man & The Sea -Hemingway
2.05 Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It - Dyer
1.05 Half a Life - V.S. Naipaul
1.05 Cod - Kurlansky
1.05 Endurance - Alexander

11.04 Short History of Nearly Everything-Bryson
11.04 December 6 - Cruz Smith
10.04 Natural History of the Senses - Ackerman
9.04 Nothing Like it in the World - Ambrose
8.04 Cadfael: Morbid Taste for Bones
7.04 Cadfael: Heretic's Apprentice
7.04 Casino Royale - Fleming
6.04 Cadfael: Summer of the Danes
5.04 Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
5.04 Venus in Furs- Sacher-Masoch
4.04 The Great Gatsby- Fitzgerald
4.04 Mao Zedong - Spence
2.04 Brunelleschi's Dome- King
2.04 Crazy Horse- Larry McMurtry
1.04 On Foot to the Golden Horn

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Flux has become a country in itself.
Pico Iyer piece in the weekend FT, about the Travel Space being a sort of home. His opinion is that, rather than decrying the impersonalization and sameness of airports and planes, he feels most at home in that travel environment, since he travels so much (and always has) and owns no home.

I think this intuition of mine - that travel might become not just a means but an end in itself - must have begun soon after I was born in Oxford, to parents from India, and we moved to California - I rejoicing in the fact that I belonged to none of these places but could claim some native acquaintance with them all... Home in California, where my parents lived, was formalised, somewhat foreign and curtained; school was the realm of the barbarians, overseen by some feudal chieftain. The aircraft, the airport - the fact of being in the passages between the fixed points, under the legislation of no government, waited on by solicitous cabin attendants and offered films and Cokes and furtive glimpses of Raquel Welch a few rows ahead of me - began to seem the place to be.

I read this while riding 39,000 feet above Greenland, on my way to an editors' meeting in london. enjoyed it, and agreed with him that the travel space is a special one, with unique good feelings. Thought about this again on the flight home, where I was upgraded to First Class. Nowhere else in my life had I ever been allowed to sit back in my chair, watching a cheap horror movie, while pretty women plied me with good port and expensive cheese. A guy could get used to this, and no one would ever suspect me of enjoying such luxury when they spotted me the next day, in shorts, raking leaves in my front yard.

Some smilarities to a piece on This American Life, by a guy riding the Greyhound, talking about the interesting transitional space that riders are often in, and how it takes so much longer than planes, giving one time for more thought about the transition.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Devil in the White City
by Erik Larsen
An interesting read, but Larsen never seemed able to (maybe he didn't want to) bring together the two stories he tells about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair: one about the architect that led the effort to win and build the fair, the other about a mass murderer who preyed on pretty young women who had come to work at or around the fair. The gruesome details of how Henry Holmes set up a small hotel near the fair grounds with secret passages to spy on boarders, gas jets to poison them, and even a small crematorium in the basement to suffocate and dispose of their remains are fascinating in a macabre way. (The Wikipedia entry on him says: "Women checked in but they didn't check out.") Reveals just how different and innocent times were then that he could contract people to build these things without anyone raising an alarm. Less interesting (but of more respectable fodder for conversation) was the story of Burnham, with its glimpse into the world of Chicago architects. I sometimes stay at Kimpton's Burnham Hotel when I visit Chicago on business -- an early skyscraper (1890s) which he designed as an office building for the Reliance insurance company. Glad to know a bit about him, though one has to be careful not to conflate the two tales in one's mind when staying there, or might have nightmares about gas jets and incineration.

Monday, November 24, 2003


Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Cory Doctorow weaves together some of the most interesting ideas of today's technology (cloning, the reputation economy, wireless connectivity, ubiquitous networking) into a tale about a few enthusiasts trying to preserve the purity of Disney World's Haunted Mansion a few hundred years in the future. In this imagined society, the regard of your peers, measured in "whuffie", substitutes for cash. Death is obsolete, so long as you remember to back up your own data (that is, your memories and thoughts) fairly often so they can be restored in a cloned version of yourself, should some bad luck befall you. The book is a fun meditation on these ideas, even if the plot gets a little bogged down behind them. Cory distributed this book online in about 16 different formats, so I'm probably one of the few readers who actually paid money for a hard copy.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Bel Canto
(Writing this two years hence) this was a creative little book, nice little romance about people trapped in a Peruvian mansion with the terrorist cadre that has taken them hostage. Days, weeks go by. Romances bloom between unlikely pairs, friendships form between hostage and hostage-taker. I liked the notion of romances being formed between unlikely couples who, outside of this compound, could never have gotten together. In their isolation, they created a kind of utopia where the problems that had led the terrorists to act no longer really existed -- they faded away, just as did the real-life burdens and responsibilities of the hostages. Book is ruined by its end, when rescue teams crash through the gates and kill just enough characters to make it sad.

Saturday, July 05, 2003

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
I thought I'd go back and read some more of the books they make you read in high school, just to see how much better they are now. I did this about 10 years after high school, read an awful lot of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Started in with a short one, Cannery Row, and I had forgotten what a good, lyrical writer he is -- once you suspend a sense of cynicism that rises up in the face of the "aw-shucks" good nature of everyone involved in his tales, from the cops to the pimps to the bankers. Here he is describing a tidepool scene:

Then the creeping murderer, the octopus, steals out, slowly, softly, moving like a gray mist, pretending now to be a bit of weed, now a rock, now a lump of decaying meat while its evil goat eyes watch coldly. It oozes and flows toward a feeding crab, and as it comes close its yellow eyes burn and its body turns rosy with the pulsing color of anticipation and rage. Then suddenly it runs lightly on the tips of its arms, as ferociously as a charging cat. It leaps savagely on the crab, there is a puff of black fluid, and the struggling mass is obscured in the sepia cloud while the octopus murders the crab. On the exposed rocks out of the water, the barnacles bubble behind their closed doors and the limpets dry out. And down to the rocks come the black flies to eat anything they can find. The sharp smell of iodine from the algae, and the lime smell of calcerous bodies and the smell of powerful protean, smell of sperm and ova fill the air. On the exposed rocks the starfish emit semen and eggs from between their rays. The smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth, burden the air. And salt spray blows in from the barrier where the ocean waits for its rising-tide strength to permit it back into the Great Tide Pool again. And on the reef the whistling buoy bellows like a sad and patient bull.

I feel good about reading Steinbeck (particularly when it's an old, yellowed, musty paperback) because they are often California stories. So much of the fiction I read takes place in New York or New England, and the history in Europe; it's good to read a little about home.


A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
There's a real vicarious pleasure in reading about two overweight, middle-aged guys foolishly tackling something as ridiculously challenging as hiking the Appalachian Trail, through freezing snow and wilting heat -- and not having to be one of them. Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz set off from the trail's southern terminus in Georgia, and it's fun watching them suffer through the physical and emotional agony of learning to hike the trail -- funner, I am certain, than it was for them to actually hike it. I was more relieved than disappointed when after 150 or so pages, and what seemed like weeks or months of hiking, they stumble into a store to resupply and spot a 4-foot tall map of the Trail on the wall, and discover that they have progressed but 2 inches up the trail. They give up, and hike only parts of it after that, but their quitting didn't disappoint me so much as make me feel justified in the things I've given up on.

I resisted reading Bill Bryson for years. I thought he would be like Dave Barry: one of those writers that everyone tells you is just awfully funny, but doesn't do a thing for me. Bryson was better than I expected. Leah loaned it to me and insisted I would like it, and she was right. By page 30 or so, I liked the guy, and am looking forward to reading more. He shares a similar quirk with me in being able to disparage "fat Americans" while being 20 pounds overweight himself.

Thursday, June 19, 2003


The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
This quiet little book follows the titular heroine through the class and sexual tensions of a 17th-century Dutch household that just happens to be the home of Vermeer. Griet, the wide-eyed girl as they call her, becomes a maid in the artist's house, an outsider and resident scapegoat who is unable to make a bridge with anyone in the household, except for its one male resident, the artist. Go figure. It quickly becomes clear that painting someone is the book's (perhaps the era's as well) equivalent of making love, as Vermeer puts off the demands of a wealthy and lecherous patron to paint himself and Griet together. Instead, he makes her his own, begins to teach Griet the craft, instructing her about light and color, and showing her how to break up charcoal or sea shells to make paints. He lets her into his private studio -- a privilege he doesn't grant even to his clumsy wife, who comes off as little more than an insecure and awkward breeder. When the climactic moment arrives, he lovingly helps Griet put on his wife's pearl earring -- the metaphors are running thick at this point -- and helps her wrap the silk around her hair as he places her in just the right light. Was it good for you? I liked it anyway; I don't read many romance novels, and I didn't mind getting tricked into reading this one.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Project Orion
The premise of this book is mighty cool: history of a govt-funded program in San Diego in late 1950s and early 1960s to build spaceships -- not the little capsules that went up with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, but big Buck-Rogers-style spaceships, like submarines in the sky. It was something of a Plan B, while NASA developed the capsules, Project Orion looked at a larger scale, long-term proposition. Obvious problem is how to move something that big up through and out of the atmosphere, and the main idea seems to have been to use atomic bombs -- each little blast propelling the big spaceship further up and out into the solar system. Madness, and I guess the growing awareness of the harm posed by fallout helped kill the program. Lost interest and never finished the book.

Monday, February 03, 2003


When China Ruled the Seas, by Louise Levathes

The premise here is that Chinese sailors, from ancient times, were avid explorers, venturing to Africa, Australia, and even America, reaching a peak in the Treasure Fleets commanded by a eunuch admiral named Zheng He, in the Ming era at the start of the 15th century A.D. Zheng He had been a servant and later general for an imperial prince, Zhu Di, and the voyages of the Treasure Fleet were partly intended to reaffirm to the lands at the fringes of The Middle Kingdom the strength (and legitimacy) of China after Zhu Di had chased his nephew emperor off the throne.

The evidence for Australia and America is interesting if a bit flimsy, but the evidence of their Ming journeys is well documented, in Chinese, Persian and other sources. Their ships were enormous, somewhere between 400 and 500 feet long with eight or more masts -- a schematic drawing compares one to Columbus' Santa Maria, which could just about be carried on it as a life boat. They sailed out with porcelain, silks, and incense and came back with gold for the depleted imperial coffers -- and tales of the world around them, including the story of Mouxie (Moses) and the golden calf (as related by the people of India) and the knowledge that upper class Siamese men make a tinkling noise when they moved since they "had a dozen tin or gold beads partly filled with sand inserted into their scrotus. It looked 'like a cluster of grapes.' "

The fleets journeys came to an end in the years after Zhu Di's death, a casualty of struggles between Confucian royal advisors who looked inward to China and its farmers as the proper source of the empire's attentions and revenues, and the enuchs who were more adventurous and outgoing. Within a century, Vasco de Gama's Portuguese ships had sailed around Africa from the west, on past the points around Kenya and Zanzibar where the Chinese fleets had reached. China turned inward and Europe took over the world.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003


Paul Johnson's Napoleon

On the Economist's recommendation, I read Paul Johnson's short biography of Napoleon. I had never read a bio of the man, or the era, and this one at 180 pages was about all I wanted to invest in it right now. But it was a fun read, and very helpful at stitching together a lot of loose pieces about the era that had been floating around in my head with nothing much to connect them. What, for example, was the French army doing in Egypt, and how did they get out of there? (It was part distraction from the troubles at home, part a gambit to imitate Alexander's conquests; when it became a quagmire, Napoleon saluted his brave troops and snuck home across the British-controlled Meditterranean.)

Some of my favorite parts had to do with the strange life of an emperor-conqueror in exile, particularly during his first exile in 1814 on Elba, which was close enough to Italy for him to become something of a tourist attraction:

His temper was not improved by the fact that the English upper classes and many middle-class busybodies, too, had resumed the Grand Tour after years of isolation. They swarmed into Florence, among other places, and it did not require much organization to 'take in' Elba and its caged monster. About sixty English tourists alone made the trip and duly gawked. If lucky enough to be introduced, they found the fallen emperor gracious and informative, though he also, as always, asked incessant questions. But Bonaparte, behind his civility, felt exposed and humiliated.

Imagine this! The Emperor of France, who for all of the past 15 years had made Britons feel a prisoner on their island, leading armies of looters and rapists across the nations of Europe, marrying his sisters to royalty and installing his brothers as kings -- now you could walk up and find him in his garden, chat politics with him. Picture Kissinger setting up in a smoke shop on Fisherman's Wharf.

It's not too big of a leap to imagine that his humiliation contributed to his return to Paris and the resulting Battle of Waterloo.

Thursday, January 09, 2003


W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz

Over the past few months, I've been lucky to discover two authors new to me, authors of works that have really inspired me. One is Allan de Botton, whose Art of Travel was a birthday gift from Kristen & Jonathan. I'll write more about him later.

The other is W.G. Sebald, whose Austerlitz I just finished. The narrator of Austerlitz (or rather, the proxy narrator, who is telling his story to the narrator) often says he feels he's lived in a world where he doesn't belong. I often felt that I didn't belong reading this book. The author (and the narrators) have such an easy grasp of the scope of European culture over the past few centuries, that I found myself irritated (or maybe just embarrassed) with the casual references they tossed off, which meant very little to me -- except as a gentle reminder of my own ignorance. (For example, "... the clouding of Schumann's mind as his madness came on and how at last, in the middle of carnival crowds in Dusseldorf, he took a leap over the parapet of the bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine ... " -- who is Schumann again? And why does the author assume I know who he was or that he went mad?) Of course there are at least two upsides to that sort of thing: you're inspired to learn more about the references you didn't get, and it's all the more rewarding to stumble on the passages you do (such as his references to the Rhine castles Burg Katz and Burg Maus, where even the most pedestrian of European tourists -- no names, please -- are likely to have been). Worse, the premise of two men meeting up for long conversations, where they talk until the bar closes and have to get rooms in the hotel for the night, seemed a form of time porn: Who are these guys who have enough money and enough time -- without so much responsibility as a cat at home to feed -- to devote their days to leisurely discussing architecture and history? As one reviewer noted, Sebald touches on magical realism; for me, this was about as magical as it gets. :)

Austerlitz is the last name of this proxy narrator, but it suggests other meanings. Austerlitz is several things in our culture, and in the book. The Gare d'Austerlitz is one of Paris' main train stations, the one from which trains depart for the Southwest of France. It is also (I remember only because last month I finished Paul Johnson's short biography of Napoleon) a major battlefield of the Napoleonic wars. Although it's not the main theme -- reviewers tend to focus on its larger themes of time, memory & forgetfulness, and loss and annhilation -- there is also an interesting minor theme here on the chasm between Western Europe and Mitteleurope; "Austerlitz" seems to play into that. Austerlitz, the character, recalls that he arrived in England in the summer of 1939 on one of the kindertransports -- trains loaded with children escaping Czechoslovakia in the early months of World War II. Later in life he travels back and forth between the more familiar environs of London, Paris and Belgium and the more mysterious places from his past, like Prague, Thereisenstadt, and Nuremberg. The Battle of Austerlitz was a French victory (1802?) over three central and eastern European forces (Austria, Prussia and Russia). The section of Paris named for the station (which was named for the battle) was the site during the German occupation of 1940-44 where goods confiscated from the homes of exiled Jews were warehoused, categorized, and shipped East. Together they contribute to a compelling tale of the differences between the past and the present, the living and the dead, the known and the unknown.

The terror of not knowing what will happen next in your life appears to be a theme in Sebald's work. Having just discovered Sebald, I was saddened to learn that he died in December 2001, in a car accident in southern England -- "at the height of his mastery" as one obit writer put it. Like Camus' car-crash death 40 years ago, it's a perfectly meaningless death: sudden, horrible, and completely disrespectful of the potential still emerging from the man -- just the kind of thing that makes for smug atheists.

April 9, 2003. Daphne Merken reviews Sebald's posthumously published On the Natural History of Destruction in the Sunday Book Review. The review is also a broader look at Sebald's style and his role as an artist dealing with the victims of World War II, not only those who suffered in the Holocaust but also those who died in the firestorms in bombed German cities, as well as those who survived. Conclusion is interesting: "But to reduce Sebald to a clinical depressive is to ignore the admittedly bleak gift that is the larger part of his greatness, which is his mining of a primal existential despair that goes beyond the merely personal to suggest something endemic about the condition of being human. I think of him as someone who was on good terms with darkness -- a solitary watchman who stayed awake while the rest of us dreamed, the better to acquaint himself with the mad dogs that bark in the night and threaten to disturb the sleep of the world."

Sunday, November 17, 2002


I knew I'd get lost eventually reading Paul Davies' How to Build a Time Machine, but I wasn't prepared for how completely and totally lost I'd be by the end of this brief (125 page) exploration of the physics of time. It begins simply enough, with concepts that are familiar and easy to grasp, like the observation that time moves more slowly in a speeding airplane than on the ground. This nifty feature of the universe, predicted in Einstein's special theory of relativity back in the early years of the 20th century, was later confirmed in experiments with synchronized atomic clocks in 1971. The slowing of time continues as speed increases, reaching the zero mark at the speed of light, that is, time ceases to move at the speed of light, and if one could go faster -- thus far a theoretical impossibility -- one could actually move backward in time. He cites a limerick from a 1923 issue of Punch magazine, just to show this idea's been well known for a few generations:

There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

But the big friendly sans serif type, the friendly illustrations, and the fun pullquotes are deceptive and by page 71, I was pretty well lost as he actually began to put the physics he had covered into play to construct his theoretical time machine, with a collider, an imploder, an inflator, and a differentiator -- all aimed at building a traversable worm hole and turning it into a time machine. In fact, the user friendly graphics almost made me feel stupider: it's as if Davies and his editors have done all they could, bent over backward to try to explain this stuff to all the folks out there who never made it past calculus -- and we're still lost.

That said, I'm keeping the book, and I'd really love it if I remembered to come back to it every 2 or 3 years, in the hopes that it will gradually expand my mind. Davies premise seems to be that it might be possible someday for some super-advanced civilization to be able to manipulate the necessary tools at the atomic and macroscopic levels, to actually build a time machine. The machine could allow folks to travel to the future, and again back to the past -- but unfortunately not to a past before the machine was built. So it won't be any help in figuring out what killed the dinosaurs or who Jack the Ripper really was.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Finished The Trial of Socrates, by I.F. Stone. Socrates and his disciples advocated an oligarchic, or possibly even monarchistic, form of society, much at odds with Athens' democratic tradition.

They openly mocked tradesmen, and thought it ridiculous to allow laymen a role in the management of government. A civilization uses experts in all other domains, they argued; why let non-experts take the helm in this most important duty.

Given the recent history in Athens, Socrates' teachings couldn't be written off as philosophical spouting. Twice in the past 30 years, Athens had seen its democracy overthrown, its democratic leaders exiled or executed. Socrates was no hero to Athens during those dark times, indeed one of the coups was led by his disciples.

(Socrates himself may be the first recorded trust-fund hippie: he made fun of the money-grubbing tradesmen in the marketplace, but apparently never had to work himself, living off an inheritance from his father, who had been either a stone cutter or sculptor.) This gave him the time and penchant to walk around the Agora mocking the merchants and challenging them to define virtue while they tried to put bread on their tables.

The author, I.F. Stone, was a unique investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. for many years. Unique because he relied almost solely on documents rather than interviewing people. After an illness, he retired from his reporting work, learned Greek, and researched and wrote this book.

Stone seems to feel that Socrates wanted to be convicted and martyred. He put up little resistance during his trial, except to antagonize the jury (which consisted of 500 men!). He passed up obvious reasoning that would have led the jurors to think differently about both the verdict (guilty of treason) and the sentence (death by drinking hemlock). He failed to appeal to a longstanding tradition of free speech in Athens to protect himself, a plea that should have insulated him from reprisal since, he apparently had done nothing more than speak his whole life.

Saturday, July 13, 2002


Finished Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, which concludes that the anti-Fascist forces did themselves in with inter-factional fighting -- Communists, Anarchists and Trotskyites wasting time, effort, and men fighting each other.

Some of the passages I liked best were ones like this one that give a benevolent if slightly patronizing view of Spain:

"One morning it was announced that the men in my ward were to be sent down to Barcelona today. I managed to send a wire to my wife, telling her that I was coming, and presently they packed us into buses and took us down to the station. It was only when the train was actually starting that the hospital orderly who travelled with us casually let it fall that we were not going to Barcelona after all, but to Tarragona. I suppose the engine-driver had changed his mind. 'Just like Spain!' I thought. But it was very Spanish, too, that they agreed to hold up the train while I sent another wire, and more Spanish still that the wire never got there."

I also liked this one, which points out the difficulty of trying to declare war either gruesome or glorious:

"...The men who were well enough to stand had moved across the carriage to cheer the Italians as they went past. A crutch waved out of the window; bandaged forearms made the Red salute. It was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one's heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all."

And this nice one, which seemed to sum up his experience in Spain:

"The wound was a curiousity in a small way and verious doctors examined it with much clicking of tongues and 'Que suerte! Que suerte!" One of them told me with an air of authority that the bullet had missed the artery by 'about a millimetre.' I don't know how he knew. No one I met at this time -- doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fello-patients -- failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all."

Sunday, June 23, 2002


Socialism and Optimism, c. 1937. From Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, on his time at the front during the Spanish Civil War, comparing it with the post-revolutionary return to normalcy in Barcelona: "One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word 'comrade' stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all."

Tuesday, June 18, 2002


Re-reading George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, which I read in grad school back in 1991. Orwell was one of the sympathetic left-leaning intellectuals who went down to Spain in 1937 to help the (leftist) government forces fight the (right wing) military uprising led by Franco (along with Hemingway and the members of the Lincoln Brigade). Interesting that in Orwell's opinion, the USSR was a counter-revolutionary force in 1930s Europe, especially France and Spain, since it was in a military alliance with France, and therefore relied on France's capitalist-driven military strength for protection. In Catalonia, during the Spanish Civil War, the Communists were the most conservative and anti-revolutionary of the various government & trade union factions, working to marginalize the anarchists who were further out to the left.