12 December 2009

Politics and Fiction: the Possibility of Learning?

Bird Loomis, prof at the University of Kansas, wrote again about his serious, professional reading. Not that serious, professional reading can't be enjoyable. (See how easy it is to add your ideas here.)

"For the second time I'm teaching my course on Literature and Politics, of which I asked for suggested readings a couple of years ago. (Suggestions still welcome!) But my focus today is to write a bit about one book - A Dangerous Friend -- by one of my favorite authors, Ward Just [left]. Just writes intimately about politics in various venues, most notably D.C. and around Chicago. But he was a war correspondent in Vietnam (a good one, a contemporary of David Halberstam) for several years, and has lived a lot in Europe.

"In A Dangerous Friend he writes about Vietnam in 1965, near the start of the major troop build up. Americans were still hopeful, albeit naively, in their approach to the 'effort' to do some good in this nation we could scarcely locate on a map.

"As usual, Just brings broad political, policy, and moral issues down to the personal level Moreover, writing a decade ago about an older conflict, Just offers a news lens through which to examine our 2009 (and ongoing) involvement in Afghanistan. This seems one marker for effective fiction - a plot line and a set of characters that transcend time and place. (Think Shakespeare)

"What makes A Dangerous Friend such a compelling read in 2009 is that it's a 1999 book that looks back to 1965 in Vietnam, when there were still many American optimists (naifs?) who had concluded that we could build a Western-style democracy in a small, rural Asian nation. What was most thought-provoking for me here, beyond Just's narrative, is that I've read this book three times - in 1999, in 2007, and now in 2009. The contexts of U.S. military involvement have been quite distinctive in those three periods; strangely enough, I think ADF packs more of a punch in this third reading, as we commit more troops to Afghanistan, than it did in my two previous ones.

"In the past, I've talked a bit about rereading books, but often just for pleasure. But here there is some instrumental value to revisiting a book. Might it even be worthwhile to give a copy of ADF to some policy makers. One never knows."

Character driven story

While I was reading the McNeill's father-son world history book (see below), the Carleton College book store had its annual sale day: 20% discount on everything. Students were on break; the campus is pretty deserted. The discounts are advertised in Northfield as a sale for the community. Gee, 20% off -- that's almost as good as the discounts at Barnes and Noble. Of course I went.

Outside the bookstore were half a dozen tables of remainders. How could I resist looking? One short stack on a table contained The Cruel Stars of the Night by Kjell Eriksson [right]. Yes, another Swedish murder mystery.

This novel stands out from other Swedish mysteries and most non-Swedish mysteries. I'm not sure I liked the way it stands out. It's a story told through character development rather than through actions. Even the firemen who show up at one point to put out a house fire get names and hints at the relationships among them.

There are many inner monologues -- many more than the number of dialogues or conversations. And, until the last 30 pages, there are more dialogues than events.

The primary characters have flashbacks, meditations, and day dreams. It's through these mental rummagings that I learned about the characters and the events that constituted the plot. (A plot, by the way, that involves a serial killer.) It's like everything is in past tense.

It's a laborious way to tell a story. This was especially true for me because I never got attached to any of the characters (except for one of the murder victims and a hapless crime lab tech who wasn't even a big player in the book).

And then there was the patchy nature of the characters that were developed in depth. The thoughts of a few characters were exposed in great detail. In spite of that, I was startled several times by actions that were not hinted at in a character's thoughts.

The main investigator, a single mother, professes great love for her toddler son, but there are no actions that express that love. Only words. Okay, it's a murder mystery, not a domestic tale, but a mother-son relationship asserted by the mother to be central to her existence ought to be reflected in more than her words. Well, Mr. Eriksson?

And how is it that a repressed, middle-aged recluse of a woman suddenly becomes an aggressive seductress, Mr. Eriksson?

It seemed that Eriksson painted detailed pictures of large parts of characters, but left other parts completely blank. Even at the end of the book, the main investigator is hauled off in an ambulance, not reunited with her son. The primary villain -- okay a pretty insane villain, an urbanite who even dislikes gardens -- wanders off into the Swedish wilderness.

Some of this book was interesting and some of it was a pleasure to read. Much of it was tedious. I kept waiting for something to happen. When big things finally did happen (in the last 30 pages), they had less impact than if they'd been more carefully described.

Have you read The Cruel Stars of the Night or another of Eriksson's other mysteries? What did you think? Write, and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

07 December 2009

New York recommendation from Ohio

Marc Reigel used his Facebook page to recommend Ian McEwan's story, The Use of Poetry in The New Yorker.

It surprised no one to learn that Michael Beard had been an only child, and he would have been the first to concede that he’d never quite got the hang of brotherly feeling. His mother, Angela, was an angular beauty who doted on him, and the medium of her love was food. She bottle-fed him with passion, surplus to demand. Some four decades before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, he came top in the Cold Norton and District Baby Competition, birth-to-six-months class. In those harsh postwar years, ideals of infant beauty resided chiefly in fat, in Churchillian multiple chins, in dreams of an end to rationing and of the reign of plenty to come. Babies were exhibited and judged like prize marrows, and, in 1947, the five-month-old Michael, bloated and jolly, swept all before him...

It's late, but I've bookmarked it for reading tomorrow since Marc thought the story "had the power to move me into that fabulous 'next-layer atmosphere' where one thinks that these words provide the key to life!" Naturally, he assumed he "might as well tell the hoi polloi!"

We've been told by the former English teacher, cover band rocker, and all-round guy.

Other opinions welcome here too. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

02 December 2009

Years in the reading

After finishing the Craig Johnson book, I reached for a book on my nightstand. That's the depository for books I think I'd like to read and books I think I should read and books I've started reading. What I grabbed was J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill's The Human Web, A Bird's-eye View of World History.

William H. McNeill was a professor at the University of Chicago and, for a long time, a lonely crusader for the cause of teaching world history. J. R. is his son and a professor at Georgetown University.

I became familiar with the elder McNeill's work when I was teaching a course called World Studies. It was difficult to teach because the secondary textbooks which purported to be about world history were really just European history with a bit of Asian history and even smaller bits of African and Latin American history appended to them (mostly as topics for discussing European colonialism).

Even academic historians (except for McNeill [right] and a few others) argued that world history was just too huge and too diverse to be a legitimate subject of study. McNeill and his allies began writing history that was really world history and demonstrated to all but the most chauvinistic that there were generalizations and comparisons to be made and lessons to be learned in a field that supposedly "diluted" real history. I had the pleasure of meeting the senior McNeill at a conference in Washington, DC a long time ago. He was as impressive in person as he is in his books.

One of McNeill's cohort, Ross Dunn of San Diego State University, wrote a secondary textbook and it was actually published. Links Across Time and Place was pretty radical. I remember that chapter 8 was about the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty. (You can see right there how "real" history was being "diluted" -- Lynn Cheney's word.) It was also a pretty good textbook and helped get students thinking.

Things have changed some in the past 30+ years. World history is considered a legitimate, if rare academic subject. The Advanced Placement program has a World History course that is rapidly catching up with European History in popularity. And we're back in a war in Asia when even Jon Stewart is pointing out that no one has ever been able to run Afghanistan: not the Mesopotamians, not Alexander the Great, not Ghenghis Khan, not the Turks, not the British, not the Russians, and not even the Afghanis. (That's a real world history lesson and the kind of lesson a lot of us learned in the 1960s.)

So, most of what's in The Human Web... was familiar to me. I haven't taught World Studies in this century. So the book has been partially read for a long time.

What I enjoy from this book is seeing new connections, and this is the book for that because it's about webs among people. Webs that were created by things like creation of speech, sharing of technology, and competiton for resources.

I liked things like:
  • "Bureaucratic administration, alphabetic writing, and portable, congregational religions have never been surpassed as instruments for sustaining civilized societies, and stand as the most important innovations generated among ancient Southwest Asian peoples between 2350 B.C.E. and 331 B.C.E."
  • "Cheap transportation allowed goods of common consumption to circulate widely. In favorable locations, a peasant family could concentrate on raising silk worms, or some other commercial crop, and rely on the market for food and other necessities."
  • "The linking up of the world's ecosystems altered Australia and the Pacific islands more drastically than any other parts of the world."
  • "Urbanization and population growth stands as the cardinal social change of the last century."
  • "Ironically, therefore, to preserve what we have, we and our successors must change our ways by learning to live simultaneously in a cosmopolitan web and in various and diverse primary communities. how to reconcile such opposites is the capital question for our time and probably for a long time to come."

If you're a fan of history, especially if you're familiar with traditional and localized histories, you might find this entertaining and worth your time. I liked it, but I've been a fan of McNeill and his work for a long time. Check it out and tell us what you think of it.

See also: