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What are you reading?

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BOOK NOTE: MH April 5, 2017

Listen, Liberal
by
Thomas Frank
Henry Holt, 2016

Frank's thesis is that liberals have lost their connection to the American wage earner, and they need a kick in the keister to send them back toward their real constituency. (He provides it.)

He posits that the great mass of the
American people are bamboozled and thwarted by a highly educated, rich elite who protect and nurture each other and who, when governing, do not solve the basic structural problems that exacerbate inequality.

[Use arrows to cont.]

We have a meritocracy of the best, the brightest, and the richest, suggests Frank. The rest of us have economic stasis and unemployment.

Though the author confesses to voting for Democrats, he is scathing about Bill Clinton's lurch to the right during the nineties, and he is not much kinder to what he calls Obama's "timidity." Perhaps that reflects the President's incorrect assumption that others are as smart and reasonable as he is.

(Does anyone note that Barack Obama succeeded in each phase of his career, not only because of his gifts, but also because he was assiduous in repressing any hint of "angry-black-man syndrome"? His habit may have nothing to do with "timidity.")

Both Democratic presidents talked a good worker-story. But in actual governance, they surrounded themselves with Goldman Sachies and high-powered academics.

Creativity takes some Frank lumps. He mocks industrially deprived cities about their efforts to lure art, music, and drama to their poverty-wracked acres. He implies that the effort is merely their deep obeisance to an elite professional class. (I quarrel with that view. There are altogether too many poor artists, musicians, writers, and actors among those recruited; and artsy gentrification cannot be all bad. Merely inadequate.)

Frank witheringly addresses technology, education and innovation as answers to wage-earner woes. Innovation gets an especially effective blast of his contempt with several pages in which the word "innovation" gets iterated--and iterated and iterated and iterated.

"Every economic arrangement is a political decision," says Frank. "It's not done by God. It's not done by the invisible hand." (Interview with Kathy Kiely, 2016). He is convinced that the two Democratic presidents could have made equality-encouraging decisions rather than endorsing the conventional wisdom of wealthy, "well-graduated" professionals.

Something's missing from this useful assault on rule by elite professionals and rich cohorts. (Frank loves the word "cohort.") Where are the solutions, Thomas? The knock-down is effective and mind-switching. Now what?

____________

MH April 16, 2014

Daniel Deronda
by George Eliot
Penguin books 1995

First published
Wm. Blackwood & Sons
MDCCCLXXVI

Unity. That is one of the parts of novel-art that contributes mightily to reader-glue. Can anything visual or literary be "art" without it?

Daniel Deronda lacks it. If you have just finished Eliot's wonderful Middlemarch, this comes as a shock. The lack is not about the much-debated "English chapters" and "Jewish chapters"; it is about the arrangement and choice of materials in all the chapters.

The book wanders off to some universe other than the one in which it started. Maybe that is an inherent danger in the publishing custom of the day--appearance in print of the first chapters before the next ones have been written. (Of course, Dickens dealt excellently with it.)

After Eliot offers a brief introduction to Daniel (the title character), she abandons him in favor of multiple chapters about the beautiful Gwendolyn Harleth. (Forms of the word "demon" are frequently used to describe her, though Gwendolyn's thoughts and behaviors suggest something more commonplace.)

Ahah! This book is mistitled. It should have been called Gwendolyn! Well, not exactly.

At last Daniel-the-handsome, Daniel-the-painfully-brilliant-and-virtuous emerges. His perfection of character is stifling; it is cardboard stuffed up your nose. George means us to admire him copiously, and we try; but irritation slithers in. The author seems to
understand the narcissistic Gwendolyn much better than she does her title character.

These deficits do not diminish some other reading delights (a turn of phrase, and insight, a piece of unexpected information or keen scrap of human behavior, a minor character such as the child Jacob or the unpredictable painter, Hans); but then one bumps against the umpteen-thousandth literary allusion. Why? Sometimes it seems there will be hardly a

[Use arrows to cont.}

paragraph without the title of an Italian aria, a German poem, a Dante quote, a reference to
Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, epigraphs a la Browning, Wordsworth, La Fontaine, Sterne. Even for this period it is excessive.

Dare I wonder if the excessiveness is related to the insecurity of a nineteenth-century female in a male profession? (Maybe not. Jane Austen didn't seem afflicted.) Oh George, your intellect is obvious. You don't need to pummel us with it.

One may also wonder about certain motifs: in varying degrees, a number of characters sing. (Daniel, Daniel's mother, Gwendolyn, Mirah, and Mab.) The lovers (Daniel and Mirah) both suffer from bad parenting. Gwendolyn repeats sobbing scenes so often that reader sympathy is strained, and her frequent, unspecific professions of future virtue grow thin with repetition. (Must this character just dribble away in tears?)

It is almost as if, after 700 or so pages, Eliot has grown weary of these people and run out of organic invention. In the final pages, Daniel's decision to travel to Jewish lands seems tacked on, almost afterthought.

"I mean everything in the book to be related to everythng else," the author has said. Is this a swat at unity?

More substantial than the motifs mentioned above is the repeated theme of male power and female powerlessness: Klesmer's unquestioned pronouncements about the quality of Mirah's and Gwendolyn's singing; the cruel, silently endured dominanace of his wife by Grandcourt; the disposable status of Mrs. Glasner and her children; the enslavement of Daniel's mother by her rigidly Jewish father, causing her to "save" her son from Judaism by abandoning him; the brutal-to-females laws of English inheritance. Beauty and/or money are womankind's only sources of power. It's a worthy theme--one not yet dead.

Also alive and well in the twenty-first century is the tribal/racial/religious question of whether to separate or merge. This reader is a "merger." (Yes, let's strive for a medium brown religionless human race.) At this point in her life, Eliot is apparently a "separator."

The Judaism theme and the novel's sketchy, final Zionism (embraced on these pages before there actually was official Zionism) may be surprising to modern readers of English fiction, though it was surely heavily "in the air" as the book was being written. Did this novel influence the growth of Zionism? Some say so.

I am not convinced that the whole Jewish/English issuse is responsible for the novel's lack of unity. Illusions of growth and inevitability in art are, for the most part, a mystery.
____________
Postscript:
To be art. a work must lift, smash, or coax us out of our pathetic little glass bubbles. I never tire of the nineteenth-century habit of at least leaving the reader thinking seriously about how s/he might try to become a kinder, more generous and loving person. Daniel Deronda does that.

It is so unlike our twentieth- and twenty-first- century novelists who love to smash us out-of-bubble and leave us dangling in an alien universe.

Some Short Stories

  MH Oct. 30, 2012

See Alice Munro: far right; this page.

_________________
Read some
  by
  Richard Russo
_________________

    The Brigadier and the
  Golf Widow
  [a collection] by
  John Cheever
  Harper & Row, 1964

Maybe all Cheever characters have a stench about them.  There is no Russo-like human warmth or forgiveness. You wouldn't want to share a dwelling with one--or even meet one on a train. They have all decayed and dried. What they value is lifeless, thin, and disgusting, sometimes a bit mad.

And the stories are brilliant. Why is that? Maybe readers get fascinated with exposure of--and recognition of--their (our) own basic narcissicism. Maybe it's Cheever's simple language and the occasional shock of of a particular sentence.

I don't know how to reconcile thse two paragraphs, but it is good to be reminded of John Cheever.
    ______________

  "The Disappeared"
  By Salman Rushdie
  The New Yorker (magazine)
  7/17/12, pp.50...

  MH Sept.13, 2012
"The Disappeared" is the beginning of Salman Rushdie's hiding-from-Islamic- assassination story. It is apparently part of his new book: Joseph Anton, a Memoir, published by Random House. ("Joseph Anton" was his alias during the disappearance.)

If ever you are tempted to "respect' the blood-thirsty religions, Rushdie's experience is likely to restore you to reality.
  ________

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter
by William Deresiewicz
Penguin Press 2011

Reading leads to reading, don'cha know?

This will send you back to re-read the six.

Deresiewicz is very satisfying as he skewers his own youthful intellectual snobbery. You remember that period in your late teens and early twenties when everything in your ken had to be cutting-edge, intellectually fashionable, beyond your parents' wildest dreams, and rari-rari-rarified. Even if you didn't understand lots of it, it felt so good to look down various parts of your anatomy onto 19th century novels, especially those by and about women.

  [Use arrows to cont.]

A Jane Austen Education is a smart, fast read--even though Deresiewicz sabotages himself with certain extraneous personal stuff and a marriage-ending, which sounds perfectly Jane, but isn't.

Before getting back to Jane, however, I had to finish Emily, Alone [see this page], a surprising male foray into the too-common phenomenon of the discarded elderly female. (The author borrows Jane's method of turning quotidian detail into gripping story, though with less wit and snark, and lots of contemporary relevance.)
  _________

  MH December 2011
  JANE AUSTEN

 
For all my left-wing proclivities, they are only 90%. My other 10% is Jane-Austen-Tory.

In my teenage years, she was a huge influence--along with Emerson. Having just re-read Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensiibility, I am eager to hear from you other re-readers or new readers.
  Mansfield Park
   by Jane Austen
  Penguin Books 1985 (1st pub. 1814)
  [Excellent intro by Tony Tanner, 1966,
  But don't read it until after the novel!]

Actually, I urge you to get the Norton critical edition, which includes John Gregory's advice on female conduct (1761), followed by Mary Wollstoncraft's scalding Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). (Yeah, yeah. You already know these. Like Austen, they need re-reading every now and then.)

  [More to come.]
  ___________________
 

  MH July 2011

The Age of American Unreason.
By Susan Jacoby
First Vintage Books, 2009

Jacoby traces our current distrust of science and general anti-intellectualism to lagging education and religious fundamentalism, especially that which emanates from the South.

The book is a fascinating history of American belief and opinion as it has affected how we govern ourselves--as it has left us drifting behind other advanced nations.

  A big part of the problem is that
  we, as a people, have become
  too lazy to learn what we need to
  know to make sound public
  decisions.
  Jacoby, p.309

[Use arrows to cont.]

Among the many little historical items that she reminds us of is the fact that our Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia "has said bluntly that Catholic officeholders should resign if asked to uphold any public policies that contradict church doctrine...."

  [use arrows to cont.]

"It is certainly not anti-Catholic to raise the question of whether anyone who owes his highest allegiance not to American law but to Canon law belongs on the Supreme Court."

She makes a powerful case for knowing--the kind of knowing based on fact and logic rather than superstition, ignorance, and fantasy. (To "superstition, etc.", I would add the mind-numbing repetitions of political untruths that bombard us daily.)

  MH JUly 2011

    MH August 2011

Infinite Jest
By David Foster Wallace
Little Brown 1996

Page 196. I would like to stop reading this book--just turn my back on its interminable lists, its bloated divagations, its ugly /true stuff. I don't have to let Wallace rub my nose in all this shit. Close the book!

Yes but...

At the sentence level this novel is knock-your-socks-(and various other items of your wardrobe)-off thrilling! Some of the sentences roll on for five or six inches. Some of them are crafted 19th-century lit style. Some of them are in kooky dialects. Some of them send you to the dictionary.

And you're not even annoyed because they are so funny, so recognition-making, and so--well, thrilling.

  [More later. I'm just partway
  into the 1079 pages, and I plan
  to stroll.]
  ___
Later:

The novel is set in the near future.
It's a future consumed by consumerism, addiction, competitivism, entertainmentism, corporatism, gadgetism, pharmaceuticalism, informationism. Human characters have difficulty making their way among the isms. (It may make you long for Tolstoy or Henry James, but there are other rewards.)

The range and specificity of Wallace’s vocabulary speaks--yelps. It may be meant to intimidate—or simply meant to remind us of the distance between us and cavemen, as well as between ordinary reader-brains and the teeming, drug-soaked brain of the author. Among his other skills, Hal, the main character has memorized the O.E.D. However, he inhabits the insufficiency of I.Q. even as as the author dazzlingly employs it. He (the author) also misspells. (Oh good. We have something in common.) On purpose? I don't know.

Some of the book indulges in goo and gore, sinking to the level of forensic television shows that just can’t display enough mucus-laden, bloody, yukky intestines and mangled flesh in the hope of trashing one more standard of cultivated nicety. It’s the author as infant, smearing his crib with feces.

The device of providing numbered notes in the back of the novel both pricks academia and works well, a delightful contradiction. Don’t skip them.
   [Use arrows to cont.]

There are lists. Lots of lists. Lists of electronic gadgets (real and imaginary), places passed in a building, names of drugs (real and concocted, I suspect), and so many alphabeted organizations that they dissolve into a pot of silliness. The very excessiveness of the list-device forces one to ask if these things have already crowded out everything else in contemporary life; if this is all there is; if this is insanity; if not these things, then what?

The characters are mostly so shallow and plastic that one hopes never to meet any of them—and wonder if one is meeting no other kind.

  [More later, maybe]

Later:
So I was wrong. I begin to feel for Mario, Hal, and Avril. I got past the

  PR circulars of the Union of
  the Hideously and
  Improbably Deformed
  [U.H.I.D.], an agnostic-style
  12-step support group for
  what it calls the
  'aesthetically challenged.'

That list goes on for pages. It's a list to make you throw up. To make you hate a non-God and his infinite jests. Then comes a sweet melody like
  The Moms calls the
  houseplants her Green
  Babies, and she has a
  rather spectacular thumb,
  plant-wise, for a Canadian.

Sentence-wise, Wallace likes those diatonic melodies amid the tutti, double-forte dissonances. And one is grateful.

BOOK NOTE: MH APRIL 28, 2017.

THE CRISIS OF THE MIDDLE-CLASS CONSTITUTION; WHY ECONOMIC INEQUALITY THREATENS OUR REPUBLIC
by Ganesh Sitaraman
Knopf, 2017

"...an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind"
( From a 1776 draft of
Pennsylvania's constitution!)

"The wealthy start believing they're better than everyone else, that they are more virtuous, that they deserve to govern."

That last quote is from Sitaraman's Atlantic interview with Rebecca Rosen. It pretty much sums up the book's reason for existing. The author is compelled to trace the history of the phenomenon from the Greeks to the present because it explains so much. But some of us (overly eager folks) may feel compelled to consume the final 29 pages first. Those pages bring together a daunting list of things that a bottom-up movement might do about the crisis of inequality.

[Use arrows to cont.]

Sitaraman points out that the agrarian nature of our population at the time of Constitution-creation--plus the availability of land stretching to the Pacific--made for a kind of natural equality not possible elsewhere on the planet. However, since the arrival of the gilded ages (both the late 19th century one and the present day one), the crises of inequality may have become destructive of the nation.

The middle class is front and center these days. Its exact parameters may be murky, but it is admired as the sanest, least corruptible segment of society. Many of us (especially Sitaraman) fear its demise.

Mostly missing from the current national crash-alogue is overt emphasis on poor people. "Poor" means struggling to acquire the basics of survival. Remember? Nowadays, it once again seems possible that the existence of a "poor" class is inevitable. We have turned our attention to preserving the middle.

Even though it seems only yesterday that we championed "The Great Society" and "The War on Poverty," you won't find them much in Sitaraman's book. The word "poor" has receded from book titles and political talk, and from "The Crisis...". Still, in spite of that, the work speaks for economic compression and hence is a lot about the poor. (See cartoon to your left.) The poor are not buried--just subsumed in the flow of equality ideals and the assumptions embraced by our middle-class constitution.

The author is extremely persuasive. He tells the equality/inequality story through the words and deeds of specific people. Real people. People who seem alive and knowable. His is a book of quotes, hearable off the page; and that becomes an exciting read.

Among the many people who live in this book is one James Harrington, a seventeenth century political philosopher who is said to have influenced Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. He pops up throughout, and if you haven't yet met him, you will be glad when you do. He seems to hover over Sitaraman like some guiding angel reminding him that "power follows property," "power follows property."

Toward the end of the book, there are a few pages of those ought-to-be-alarming statistics describing inequality in America. My eyes glaze; though one oft-repeated statistic can always pinch me awake: "In 1979, the CEOs of America's most successful companies made on average 29.9 times as much as their workers. By 2013, they made 295.9 times as much as their workers."

"... the collapse of the middle class and America's increasingly rigged political system are connected. But the truly terrifying thing is that they
reinforce each other.

As wealth is concentrated in the hands of elites and corporations, they use their wealth and influence to rewrite laws and regulations in ways that help them amass even greater wealth and power.... This dynamic makes it more and more likely with each passing day that modern America is losing its character as a republic."
(page 224)

If you wonder how we got here, read Sitaraman. If you intend to do something about it, first take notes on his final 29 pages.
___________

MH March 28, 2013

The Future: Six
Drivers of Global Change
by Al Gore
Random House, 2013

How did Al Gore--this learned, wonky and wise polymath--ever become a mocked man? (Invention of the Internet and all that crap.)

If you're looking for science-fictionish content, don't go here. The book is a mini-encyclopedia of actual science and technology, distilled and put into language for general readers. Its many short histories link twenty-first century sciences and technologies to the past and imply future directions that may preserve humankind and its creaky civilizations.

Perhaps the book should have been called Where Humans Are Now rather than Future.
[Use arrows to cont.]

The sheer volume of information and ideas--the broad scope it tackles--is amazing. Can you survive information overload?

There are major and minor gems. Among the minor bits, he notes that, while we humans create our tools, the tools are also changing us.

Example: there is research strongly
[Use arrows to cont.]

suggesting that when people fully adapt to GPS, they lose their natural sense of direction! He describes spider silk--an elasic material five times stronger than steel--created by genetic engineers who insert genes from spiders into goats, which then secrete the spider silk!

This stuff is fun, but Gore's object is to alert, not to amaze. He asks the human race to know its earth-home and create policies that allow us to thrive here.

Speaking of spiders, sections of the book are divided by spidery black and gray graphics. They are labeled with concepts and anchored in the middle by a large concept. (Best to peruse these both before and after reading the section.)

Gore reminds us that the technological revolutions of the past (e.g., use of metals, the printing press, genetic sequencing, etc.) all had swathes of time separating them, and that, with each new revolution, the time between has radically shrunk. The acceleration of each tech revolution requires extraordinary and ever faster human adaptation.

The burgeoning numbers of people on this planet is a commanding worry; but Gore seems not to notice that he--and the rest of the world--have dumped population concerns clumsily into the laps of women. (Cultures that drape half their populations with desire-damping cloth, trick some of them into sterilization, demand or constrict birth control always seem to target women rather than men. This is odd in that the will-to-fuck appears to be a predominantly male phenomenon.)

Our populations have quadrupled in less than a century. Obviously, more people equals more consumption of resources, more burning of fossil fuels, more unintended consequences. (We are adding to the atmosphere the equivalent of more than 5 Gulf-oil spills each day.)

Economic theory is not a major component of Future, but Gore does remind us that the U.S. has more income/net worth inequality than Egypt or Tunisia, and that corporate power (which he calls Earth, Inc.) is overwhelming governments in the world's decision-making processes.

Topsoil and groundwater crises, genetic tinkering, intelligence-enhancing discoveries, robosourcing of jobs, 3-D printing that can create a house in 20 hours, nano-second stock trades, artificial life, etc., etc., etc. All these shape our future. They are here now.

We may be "the architechts of our own demise," or we may look at the data, consider human values, and make rational decisions. The decisions we will make (or have made such as that of the Ottoman Empire to ban the printing press, leaving Arab-speaking people hopelessly behind) will spell the sluggishness, progress, or death of of our species.

Al Gore wants us to pay attention.
____________

PS: Geez. To think we could have had this man as a United States president instead of the Bush Boob. Talk about bad decisions.

______________

MH January 10, 2014

THE GOLDFINCH
by Donna Tartt
Little, Brown, 2013

(Intriguing. Though I renamed it The Drugstory and complained noisily about editors as missing persons.)

The tale begins with a bright, sophisticated, damaged pre-teener (Theo Decker) living cozily with his mother in Manhattan. The two of them take shelter from the rain in the Metropolitan Museum where a terrorist bomb explodes, leaving Theo orphaned and in possession of an exquisite seventeenth-century painting. It is Carel Fabritius' "Goldfinch." (Some kids have teddy bears. Theo now has a rare and valuable Fabritius.)

[Use arrows to cont.]

A prosperous Park Avenue family takes Theo in until his long-missing, parched, soulless father reappears and hauls him off to a parched, soulless Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas pages have lots of over-written teenage crime, violence, and drug-induced stupidities. Adults are so shallow, banal, and wicked that a reader may threaten to abandon the whole thing. Yet, one plunges on--obsessively--and after the final page is turned, something mind-altering and hard to define keeps on vibrating. (Yes, editor, it could vibrate with less.)

[Use arrows to cont.]

The characters are mostly epidermis, apparently with active nervous systems but little blood, stomach or heart. (That doesn't mean that they are uninteresting.)

Is it possible for a human being/fictional character to be enormusly brain-gifted and still so passive, so easily manipulated, corrupted, and helplessly maneuvered by other damaged humans as is Theo Decker? Occasionally Tartt threatens to hand back to the reader all suspension of disbelief.

Boris is Theo's friend. And I use the term loosely. He is borderless energy, wickedness, genius and stupidity. Tartt seems to admire him. I don't.

In fact, few characters are very admirable. If you need admirable, try another novel.

This book's much-noted Dickensian comparisons are easy--and perhaps quite superficial: an orphaned boy, a multitude of immoral people, and a cold, murderous culture, even the evocative name of the main character ("Theo Decker," the god-puncher?) Oh yes, and a female character named Pippa. They seem aimed at evoking the master; but Tartt's assets and deficits are her very own 21st century assets and deficits.

Sentence/phrase-freaks like me are amply rewarded, although many of the author's best verbal stings also beg for some red pencil.

"...night dropping hard like a slammed door."
("Dropping"? Okay, so it's a garage door.)

"...an ugly metallic taste in my mouth like I'd
been sucking on a handful of pocket
change." ("as if"! "as if"!)

"...a love more binding than physical
affection, some tar-pit of the soul where I
might flop around and malinger for years."
(A "binding tar-pit"? Well, maybe.)

What makes this book a best seller? Some middle-classers aching to ascend into higher strata get mounds of data about antiques, private school, multi-lingualism, expensive clothing and decor, and life-habits of the rich and richer. Toss in a snippet of intellectualism, some violence, some literary art, and a sort-of, not-too-familiar philosophy--and presto!

Go ahead, reader. Surrender, admire, cavil.

________

MH October 3, 2013

Fear Itself
by Ira Katznelson
Norton, 2013

Katznelson's grandmother said, "Since Roosevelt they are all pygmies." I have tended to agree with Grandma. But oh, the fearful price paid.

This book is about that price and the fears, and the deals, and lots of stuff you didn't know or have forgotten.

The fears:
1) Mass despair as a result of global economic breakdown.
2) Muscular, "efficient" authoritarianism taking hold around the world.

[Use arrows to cont.]

3) Profound uncertainty about the ability of liberal democracies--of legislatures--to solve problems.
4) Fear of war. (Militarism on the march in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia.) And then, of course, the bomb....
5) For some, fear of white supremacy. For others, fear of black equality.

[Use arrows to cont.]

Katznelson fills in the blanks and makes new connections.

He makes a convincing case for the idea that we got the goodies of the New Deal only by caving to a wicked, Jim Crow South. (Preservation of murderous institutional racism and winking at the atrocities called

"lynchings" were traded for New Deal votes in Congress. Social programs could not arise or survive without those southern votes.)

He cites multiple examples of Americans fawning on Fascists, praising Mussolini, and offering the Fascist salute within our shores. He spotlights the virulent fear that liberal democracy was too weak and pokey to deal with the Depression, agricultural crises, anti-Semitism, labor unrest, and mass unemployment.

[Use arrows to cont.]

All over the world, people were begging for, or acquiescing to, what they hoped were genius-dictators. (Had they any idea those geniuses would become genocidal butchers?)

[More to come]

  MH July 2012

  End This Depression Now!
  book by
  Paul Krugman
  Norton, 2012

It's the language, stupid! (And the data, and the logic and the history.)

Who would think that an economics book could be a page-turner? You know, that's when you stay up until wee hours reading because you can't wait to see what is coming--and you're engaged by how it is coming.

If you are an economics "civilian," you may have concluded that there are so many million variables to any economic phenomenon that logic and science regarding it is impossible.

    [Use arrows to cont.]

Fortunately, whatever logic and science there is seems to be explored by Paul Krugman, and lots of it is in his new book, End This Depression Now!

(If our species can locate the Higgs boson, surely we can crack a few economics invisibles!)

For example: For years Krugman has been trying to teach us that what is economically true for individuals and families may sometimes be untrue for larger entities like countries and Euro zones. It is "the thrift paradox." (In a few paragraphs, don't expect this civilian to elucidate. Read the book!)

And yes, I know. Kitchen-table economics sounds very reasonable. It fits on bumper stickers. Even John Boehner can mouth its homely axioms. ("When you accumulate too much debt, cut back spending.") The only trouble is that on a country-wide scale, cutting back the spender-of-last-resort (government) is likely to exacerbate a recession/depression.

Krugman concludes that government needs to feed a depression and starve a boom. Readers of his NY Times column will not be surprised by that; but the book helps one understand the "why" of it and beats back arguments from "the Austerians," whose "cut-spending, cut-taxes, demolish-demand, and to-hell-with-the-unemployed" litany seems to be in ascendancy world-wide...

  AND OBVIOUSLY ISN'T WORKING!

  (For a bit of push-back, read Matthew
  Bishop's piece in the June 15th [2012] NY
  Times. Bishop is NY bureau chief of the
  Economist. But god knows, the Economist
  could use a little Krugman zip and clarity.)

If you are not already enraged about the new robber barons in this nation, read Krugman's chapter five, "The Second Gilded Age." And if you are inclined to doubt Occupy Wall Streeters, get some numbers here. For example:
  In 2006 the twenty-five highest-paid hedge
  fund managers made $14 BILLION, three
  times the combined salaries of NY City's
  eighty thousand schoolteachers."

One hedge fund manager that Krugman describes
paid twenty-million for a house--in order to knock it down and build a 30,771-sq-ft villa "only slightly smaller than the Taj Mahal."

  Aside:
  Recent research by Paul Piff and Dacher
  Keltner (reported in the Scientific American,
  4/10/12) suggests that, "as people climb the
  social ladder, their compassionate feelings
  towards other people decline."
 
  I wonder which economists and what political
  party they prefer?

Some ideas should be stomped on--not soft-pedaled. Thank goodness Krugman is not averse to plain words such as "wrong," "ignorant," and "foolish," words he connects to data, history, and a deep acquaintance with all kinds of economic thinking. Toes are stepped on here.

One would suppose that "serious people" of the economic persuasion would be unlikely to confuse correlation with causation; yet Krugman cites a number of examples of it. (Where is the real army of picky, academic truth-seekers when you actually need an army?)

By chapter 10, the economics has grown more dense--even in Krugman-speak, which is about as clear as any economist can make it. Unfortunately sentences are linear and economics is not. But stick with it; because an economic divide is at the core of our political divide in this country, and without some understanding, we will all go to the voting booth to elect some deluded, kitchen-table economists (some economy-killers) to appallingly high office.
  _____________

ATLAS SHRUGGED & retreated somewhere over the rainbow!

  MH Jan. 20, 2012

  Atlas Shurgged
  by Ayn Rand
  Signet Books, 1957

POLITICS GETS ITS BODICE RIPPED!
 
 

  Why drag up this 1957 economics-bodice-ripper? Because the novel has ideological "grandchildren" running for president in 2012, and it may be wise to remind ourselves of their pop-provenance. (Besides, Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind [see this page, yellow ] made me do it.)

[Use arrows to cont.]

Atlas Shrugged is one thousand eighty-four pages of breathless, B-movie prose aimed at proving what an unappreciated, nay, abused victim the American wealthy businessman really is.

 

The plot involves a bunch of successful, inventive business geniuses who get their revenge against the 99% (the rest of us dullards) by destroying their own wonderful achievements and retreating over the rainbow to a Colorado mountain hideaway. (Take that! you majority, dumb, sniveling, looters and moochers! Just see how you like life without us! )

Everything in the country falls apart. Among these business geniuses, of course, there are no slave-owners, no power-crazed dictators, no entrepreneurial, rich sex-traffickers, no "producers" whose products kill and maim; they are all squeaky-upright. Their leaders are all tall and slim with golden hair and tight-skinned faces; their self-serving, government adversaries are all small, doughy-faced, false humanitarians, phony intellectuals, and parasites. Did I mention that the "productives" abhor violence--except when they need it?

Rand puts her radical propaganda in the mouths of many characters, including a dime store clerk and a tramp who hasn't eaten for a while, yet finds the energy to do a four-page monologue of Rand-rant.

After a few hundred pages, a reader learns to recognize the oncoming propaganda and to cruise over it with a fast scan. S/he will proababy plod on to the end of the book with a kind of morbid fascination.

Except for the protagonist, women are in very short supply in this novel. Railroad mogul, Dagny Taggart (of the Taggart dynasty) has all the geniuses pretty much to herself. She is one of the boys! Except when she drops in feminine surrender to a protecting or sexually advancing, "productive" male, who is at least her business equal. And except when she revels in masochism, being "ready to accept anything [sexually] he had wished to do," or when she is "only a tool for the satisfaction of his desire." (Oh yes, he produces wonderful sex.)

The author lavishes romantic images and purple prose on steel, glass, mills, mines, furnaces, machines, and comic-book heros--even a pirate! All other humans are provided with idiot dialogue:

  "We've got to make those bastards [the
  business geniuses] stand still!"

  "I don't know. That's your job, not mine," and...

  Countless iterations of "I can't help it!"

A line favored by self-proclaimed "productives" in this book--and in real life, ever since Ronald Reagan--is "Get out of my way!" which Republicans wisely soften to "Get government out of the way."

Among the current relevances, Willard "Mitt" Romney wants to seem a "productive." Although he has not been a businessman since 1998, he struggles to make business his main campaign virtue in 2011-12. Genius? Probably not. Apparently, for the past four years since not being Governor of Massachusetts, he has been clipping coupons for his sustenance, producing nothing but tons of rhetoric, while gathering millions of dollars for his off-shore accounts, for his multiple mansions, and for his goofy-cult tithes.

Incidentally, Mitt's first-born is named Taggart. Hmmm.

The rest of the Republican crew (Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, et al.) have saluted their political grandma in varying degrees, even as they snitch language from the left and twist it into a rightist pretzel to make it taste less feudal. (Cory Robin makes the point nicely.)

Ayn Rand does indeed pump for a couple of sane principles:
  1) Trust reason not myth.
  2) Keep your brain in gear.
Wish she had. Wish the contemporary pseudo-productives would.

In Rand's fantasy, while shrugging, Atlas may have dropped the world; but, before it fell, he made sure he had cushy retirement digs in the Colorado mountains.
  _________________

  MH March 16, 2012

   The Golden Bowl
  by Henry James
  Penguin Books, 1985 (First published 1904)

"Never has so much been written about so little. And yet..."

That naughty note was penned on the title page of my old Penguin edition of The Golden Bowl.  It was from my first round with this extraordinary, gilded crystal novel. But as I come across my margin scribbles from that time, I see that I must have loved the muchness even then.

Yes, this was a re-read, son of another excellent re-read, The Master, by Colm Toibin, a novel based on the life of Henry James. A book bound to send you back to the master.
  [Use arrows to cont.]

What is one to think about characters who seem incapable of anything so human as urinating or catching a cold, but who are nevertheless laid almost bare?

The bones of the plot could be a soap opera. There are couples abiding in England or Italy: A wealthy American father (Adam) and his adoring daughter (Maggie), connected in a kind of imitation marriage; daughter Maggie is part of another couple with her princely, Italian, aesthete husband (the Prince); he in turn is one of another couple with Maggie's friend (Charlotte), a beautiful American, with a profoundly sophisticated intelligence and a need for her former lover, the Prince; then Charlotte becomes part of a couple with Maggie's wealthy father (Adam Verver).

Did you follow that? I'm merely reminding you, because I assume you wouldn't be reading this piece if you hadn't been acquainted with the book.

There is also an American woman (Mrs. Assingham) who finds reasons for her own existence in the analysis and manipulatiion of the aforementioned couples.

On these vulgar bones, James piles restrained intimacies, layered implications, mute communications, double meanings, and so much questionable goodness and its nuanced opposite that we readers are both captured and forced to piece together "what really happened here." Within a narrow world, James probes every possible angle, reflection, and shadow, and often seems a bit unsure of the reality himself.

Through at least half of the novel, the title "The Prince" appears at the top of each page--in spite of the character's absence of character. How can so little become so central? The greatness of Prince Amerigo's illustrious ancestry has become diluted over the centuries, leaving the impecunious aristocrat with only good looks, a colorless intelligence, and a keen aesthetic. "Tradition, training, and tact," Adam concludes about his son-in-law. "No man in Europe or America was...less capable of vulgar mistakes." Verver marvels at Amerigo's absence of friction, "his absence of angles," the smooth roundness of his being.

The dread of vulgarity looms over these people--and, one may suspect, over the author. In a writer less gifted than James, it would be an unattractive prissiness to post-Victorian readers, as well as to modern ones.

Adam Verver has found a new passion--the acquisition of beautiful objects for his American museum. He may feel the connection between that and the acquisition of the Prince. The aesthetic discriminations that accumulate within an aristocratic line are attributes so valuable to the American that he "buys" the Prince for his daughter.

With the arrival of friend Charlotte, the couples become a cauldron whose lid must be firmly pressed down by all--or cooly stirred and manipulated.

The conflicts are quietly stretched out into long, thin, gauzy filaments by sentences so stuffed with subordinate phrases and clauses that a journey back to find the subject and the verb is often required. It's a pleasant game. Also, paragraphs are so linked that the one makes little sense unless you have attended well the the one before. (I feel the author smiling at the success of his demand for slow and close attention.) Within those sentences, we observers are submerged in murky facts and sensibilities that the characters themselves are most reluctant to reveal.

Please, Mr. James, ignore the baldness, the "vulgarity" of my little summaries. For nuance, reader dear, go now to text.
  ___________

  Cranky MH Jan. 15, 2012

DON'T READ ME! DON'T READ ME!

A book that has to be wrestled into submission in order for a human to stay on the page doesn't really want to be read. Their publisher doesn't really want to sell the book.

As it repeatedly flips closed and you lose your place, the book insists, " Don't read me."

It was not for nothing that the late Steve Jobs spent hours contemplating the friendly look and feel of his products.

Instead of making paper books cheaper and less user-friendly, for heaven's sake, make them light, font-beautiful, and sensuously appealing to the eye and the hands.

AND ABOVE ALL, MAKE THEM STAY OPEN!

  -----------------

  MH June 2011

  LORDS OF FINANCE: the Bankers Who
  Broke the World
  by Liaquat Ahamed
  Penguin Press, 2009

Wasn’t the gold standard weird!? You dug metal stuff out of the ground, stuck it a vault and convinced the world it possessed inherent “value.” It was sort of a faith-thing like fairy godmothers and the virgin birth. If enough people believed in it, it was very comforting and stabilizing. The faith drizzled over on to paper money and everyone “believed.” If the nation had a good dig, a lot of paper money appeared. If not, well…. (Maybe yearly, pious pilgrimages to Fort Knox would have helped.)

[Use arrows to cont.]

I wonder if H.G. Wells really said that the gold standard had "a magnificent, stupid honesty about it."

I thought I was alone in my untutored questioning of the gold standard, but Liaquat Ahamed, an honest-to-goodness, real-live economist leans that way. Maybe all the modern ones do. Can’t be sure. How many economists do I know? (Actually, I am somewhat acquainted with one, Mark Mellitz of Harvard. Would I ask him a 101 question? Probably not.)

   [Use arrows to cont.]
 
Halfway through this book already I thought that perhaps it should be read alongside the new Gretchen Morgenson/Joshua Rosner book Reckless Endangerment.  Are our very own Paulson, Geithner, and Rubin anything like the financial wizards of the 1920s who are profiled by Ahamed in Lords of Finance?  How similar are the issues? Ahamed doesn’t much deal with historical comparisons, although he must have been writiing it just as our current crisis was exploding. He mainly hints and teases.

Unfortunately, when economists wax elliptical, with “if X, then Z,” I have to stop and laboriously seek the Y. (I knew I should have paid more attention in Economics 101.)

For example: once in a while Ahamed says something like this about some part of the 1920s:

  They believed that his policy of keeping
  interest rates artificially low to help European
  currencies was responsible for fueling the
  incipient bubble.

Where are the Ys? “Y” did low U.S. interest rates help European currencies? “Y” would it be responsible for fueling a bubble? Because it would be so easy to borrow money that all the people would be madly speculating in real estate and the stock market? Oo, that seems familiar.

Ahamed never allows a reader’s eyes to glaze over. And I at least know the “Y” of that. Because it’s a story. A good story. One that keeps you turning the pages and asking yourself how similar the world economy of the ‘20s is like or different from today. It keeps you wondering if our current Great Recession will be anything like the Great Depression of the ‘30s? (I am panting to come to the Great Depression, which must climax Lords of Finance. It’s like waiting for Elizabeth to fall for Mr. Darcy.)

In a few tasty paragraphs, interspersed throughout, Ahamed nails the personal colors, the mind-sets, the physical presences, the gifts and limitations of each banker. He can almost convince us that Herodotus was wrong when he said that “Circumstances rule men. Men do not rule circumstances.” The brilliance and the faults, even the health and the neuroses of Montague Norman (Bank of England), Benjamin Strong (The Federal Reserve Bank of NY), Èmile Moreau (Banque de France), and Hjalmar Schacht (Reichsbank of Germany) controlled–deliberately and otherwise--much of the world’s economic journey from WWI to the Great Depression, when it must have wiggled away from them.

These men were not banker-type bankers. They were rock stars with esoteric habits. Montague was tall, distinguished, wearer of dandyish clothes. He traveled incognito to avoid reporters and once slid down a rope into raging seas to escape them. He was prone to nervous breakdowns, consulted Jung, and dabbled in spiritualism. Still, he functioned, making significant use of brains, education and pedigree.

The other three were almost as individual and interesting as Norman. They worked together, though they seem to have had little in common except for smarts, power, and snobbery. They made decisions that mattered to world economies.

This book offers an historical period, viewed through macro-economic windows. Things look very different from those panes. Political leaders are only supporting players. The common man is invisible.

Even when Ahamed’s writing is cleanly defining something (“the central bank,” for instance) it is never merely academic. The book is alternately explanatory and novelistic in style, which turns out to be a good thing. It is a rare mingling of history, economics, and vivid personalities.

  --END--(for now)

PS: When they make the film (!) I think John Maynard Keynes, who pops up throughout, could be played by Hugh Grant--or maybe Johnny Depp.

  [cont. June 9]

My little heart is beating faster. (I'm not being facetious.) In this fourth and final section, the coming climax is palpable.

In the summer of 1927, four central bankers have met secretly in Long Island. The seven-year, close personal relationship of America's Benjamin Strong and Britain's Montague Norman is fraying a bit. It is both world economics and temperaments that have done it. The power of the Fed's bulging gold reserves has caused Strong's opinions to acquire more weight. Norman seems more proud and "superior" than before, yet more dependent upon his friend.

Strong convinces the Federal Reserve banks to ease, bringing interest rates down, releasing more money into the system. It is "un petit coup de whisky'' for the stock market, says Strong. However, in some sectors, the market had been rising much faster than company earnings. Big bubble! Speculation!

As the book raced to its Depression conclusion, I was struck with the following description of Hoover's Secretary of State, Henry Stimson:
  Born into a wealthy NY family, a
  graduate of Phillips Academy in
  Andover, Yale and Harvard Law
  School, a member of Skull and Bones,
  and a partner in the white-shoe
  Manhattan law firm ...

Macro-economy decision-makers often had such a profile. What a narrow corridor to power! What an enormous cache of less-priviliged genius must have been languishing out there untapped.

And today?

  _____

 
   

Econ-Civilian on Piketty

MH July 8, 2014

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Belknap Press of Harvard U., 2014

Toward the end of this history of economics-plus-big-ideas, French economist Thomas Piketty mentions the L'Oreal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt. Her wealth is more than 30 billion euros. (Yes. "Billion." That's about $40,830,000,000.)

Oh, you can't process that number? That much money makes Liliane and people who approach her in wealth, invisible. The rest of us never see them and cannot imagine the condition, which may be part of the reason we don't demand a bit of redistribution.

[Use arrows to cont]

In a perfectly legal manner, Liliane declares her income as never more than 500 million a year. (Aww!) And with typical Piketty understatement, the author says, "Even a person of the most refined taste and elegance cannot easily spend 500 million euros a year on current expenses."

The unspent remainder from the 500 million accumulates.

Piketty admits that individual cases are not significant; but he spends 685 pages

[Use arrows to cont.]

explaining why these kinds of accumulations, sans policy-intervention by nations, are very likely to become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. His argument seems rigorous. Technical. Thorough. Hard to refute.

In Barron's (6/2/14), Donald J. Beaudreaux tries--feebly. He describes how much more the poor possess these days (in "things" and creature comforts) than in the past. (These damned poor people are just never satisfied! ) He thus avoids the subject of the book: inequality. He further accuses Piketty of "disregard for basic economic principles." Bet you can guess which "principles" those are: Laissez faire. Trickle down. Self-correcting markets. etc. "Zombie arguments," I think Paul Krugman would calll them. (See definition pink left.)

Krugman and Bill Moyers found Piketty's prose "very readable." I would advise my fellow civilians to get a firm grasp on the few equations that the author returns to again and again. In spite of references to Balzac and Jane Austen, which give us (the word-people) occasional sighs of recognition, this is an economics book. As such, every detail must be supported with data to appease other economists. However, we civs probably don't have to consult the online addenda that supports P's already copious notes and copious index.

All the graphs and figures are intriguing. Just following them, by themselves, through the pages could be an education. My favorite figure remains I,1 (p. 24), which highlights the years during which capital as a proportion of natiional income was relatively low. Sadly, these periods seem only to follow wars and other catastrophes.

Along with the big ideas, small eye-openers and reminders abound. This one, for example, tucked into the "notes."

In the United States, the Supreme
Court blocked several attempts to
levy a federal income tax in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries and then blocked minimum-
wage legislation in the 1930s, while
fiinding that slavery and, later, racial
discrimination were perfectly
compatible with basic constitutional
rights for nearly two centuries.
( p. 653)

Piketty's wealth of reason accumulates until even a novice in economics may grasp why, without policy intervention, inequality is likely to increase to ratios rivaling the 19th century. That is followed by some bold prescriptions. He says modestly:

I am interested in contributing,
however modestly, to the debate
about the best way to organize
society and the most appropriate
institutions and policies to
achieve a just social order.

His idea of a global tax on capital is indeed bold--unless you have absorbed something from this book, which leads inexorably to it.

The global tax should become central to the debate about inequality. I am not sanguine about your convincing your congressperson, but write him/her anyway. Even in this flummoxed nation, we might get lucky and our great-grandchildren will see a global wealth tax.

Wealth itself has beaten too many of us into submission. Too many of us are mouthing rich-folk economics on our way to the voting booth, where we proceed to vote against our own--and our grandchildren's--best interests.

__________

Addendum: I never read reviews until after I have written my own. How humbling it is now to read Paul Krugman's! Has anyone ever written with more clarity, simplicity, understanding, and elegance about the science-with-a-billion-variables? He is a concept-to-language phenomenon.

Read him on Piketty in the NY Review of Books, May 8, 2014.

MH August 10, 2013

The Unwinding
by George Packer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013

The Unwinding is a stunning exposure of recent and current American mindsets, class/political parameters, and societal crises. It is nonfiction, though it ensnares like a lusty potboiler.

Packer's prose device is clever indeed, outwardly factual and bland, yet causing us to certify some strong views. I easily laid my lefty leanings on to his manner. So much so that it made me wonder if right-wingers could do the same thing with the same material.

Woven together are the personal situations and mindsets of...

[Use arrows to cont.]

Dean Price, product of the South; brimming with moxie, unrealistic American super-optimism, ideas for solving energy problems, and a remarkable ability to change. Repeatedly Price is done in by bad partners, uncaring officials, the crushing poverty around him--along with his own inattention to detail.

Tammy Thomas is a black, Youngstown factory worker who finds she has a gift for boxing with poverty, for influencing people and causing a modicum of change.

The loving Hartzell family is defeated by alcoholic parents, a collapsing economy, a child with cancer, and deep, overwhelming poverty. Toothless, fat, and uneducated, they are partially sustained by an occasional $7.60 job at Walmart. At one point, they land in a mobile home with broken windows, no appliances, no locks on doors, and holes in the walls. (That is, at least when the family is not jobless and sleeping in the car.)

All of the above were crippled from childhood by being born poor, by parental ignorance and/or wickedness, and by criminal American greed. (Packer does not lament directly, but those facts--oh those facts.)

Among the "successful" folks is...

"Smart and hardworking" Jeff Connaughton, an Alabama-born intellectual/politico. He is a sometime Republican, sometime "Biden guy." He gets rich in get-rich-investment times, but can't resist spending great lumps of his life trying to do something useful for the country. He changes.

Newt Gingrich: Well, you know. (Gingrich does not take up a lot of ink in this book except to illlustrate the country's right turn in the late 70s and 80s.)

Elizabeth Warren also gets a paucity of ink from Packer--but lots of reviewer attention. Perhaps it is because she threatens to aid and abet a saner future. (The author does not say so...out loud.)

Peter Thiel, PayPal billionaire and computerized libertarian is (to me) one of the scarier individuals in The Unwinding. He is among the gaggle of "brilliant" males whose extraordinary but narrow intelligences are, for the moment, dominating the American psyche. Members of these revolving elite groups isolate themselves in ever more self-aggrandizing ways. (May they grow in wisdom and depart in peace.) Packer doesn't judge, but you may.

The city of Tampa is a major character. The tale of Tampa's economic collapse (due to Wall Street and real-estate greed and corruption) is excruciating. Unlilke this squawker, just-the-facts-ma'am Packer does not rant. Still, one may conclude that the greedy, corrupt folks richly deserve one more ranty kick in the balls.

The collage of facts and mindsets assembled here add up to America in recent decades. It is an easily recognizable distillation, and it is made up of real live human beings.

The Unwinding leaves what-to-do-about-it hanging, waiting for some inspired puller-downer-fixers, who will start winding us back together, I guess. (Are you among them, Elizabeth?)

Don't be surprised if you have an intensely emotional response to Packer's "bland prose." The passion and the judgments will be your own, however sneakily he has unearthed them and set them hanging.

______________

[Use arrows to cont.]

MH July 3, 2013

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 2009

[A friend is a person who puts an important
book in your hands. Thanks S-J Heit.]

Guardian critic Christopher Tayler (yes, "Tayler" with and "e.") complains lightly about Mantel's ubiquitous dangling "he" in Wolf Hall. (Thank goddess I am not alone in my preposition grumpiness.) Hundreds of other pieces of dialogue float unattributed through this book. They jerk the reader to an abrupt halt and send him backward and forward to find out who is speaking. Why? Why? Why?

With that off my chest, I confess to being--along with the rest of novel-readerdom--in awe of Hilary Mantel. I don't care if this is fiction. History simply must have been exactly as she says. There is no other Henry VIII,
[Use arrows to cont.]

Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, or Thomas Cromwell. Shakespeare, all academic biographers, and a "Man for All Seasons" playwright must be wrong. Oh art.

Watching Cromwell's tough rationalism, seasoned with bits of unexpected charity and warmth, adjust and harden to realities of power and superstition is a lesson in "what is" and political survival. (I am eager to find out, in the sequel, just how such solid, self-serving intelligence and wit is downed.)

The fever-aria for Cromwell exposes Mantel's language chops; but even her throwaway lines are tasty: (Always "testing words to find their utmost power," without appearing to do so.)

"...people waiting...still have their coats
pulled over their heads, like a new race of
decapitees."

"There is a tentative, icy sun; loops of
vapor coil across the river, a scribble of
mist."

Etc., etc.

Best of all may be the non-throwaway line:
"A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old." Yes!

I think we still live in a Wolf Hall where humans howl and devour one another. Maybe something good can come of having the notion thrust at us in this particular form.

If you haven't already, do read Christopher Hitchens' best-of-all-the-reviews of Wolf Hall. (How I miss Christopher Hitchens.)
________________

MH February 13, 2013
The Twilight of the Elites:
America after Meritocracy
by Christopher Hayes
Crown Pub., 2012

If you see Chris Hayes on MSNBC, you may easily misinterpret the frantic hands and prestissimo speech, habits that struggle to keep up with his busy brain. They make him seem impossibly young. (Unless you really listen.)

Actually the ideas pushing against the limits of time and the linear nature of sentences are mostly mature, honed, and fresh.
[Use arrows to cont.]

The thesis that he lays out in Twilight of the Elites exposes the self-defeating way we have implemented the so-called "meritocracy."

It becomes clear that, without a more or less even

[Use arrows to cont.]

playing field on which individuals may begin, existing elites merely pass on their privileges to offspring, or other folks of their choosing, leaving the country with an increasingly narrow oligarchy and ever-deeper chasm of inequality. The oligarchs become more and more tempted to separate themselves from others. They often cheat--or buy the means with which to retain power. The evidence is everywwhere from sports to Wall Street to admissions to elite schools.

His supporting facts and arguments are compelling. Fact and logic are linked in a way that even Rand Paul or Paul Ryan (the "appaulings") might discover dents in their carapaces.

If you care about the future of "life in these United States," read this book.
____________________

MH February 13. 2013

Dear Life (Stories)
by Alice Munro
Knopf, 2012

These stories threaten to be Munro's last. Say it isn't so! Her gifts to English-reading human beings are unique, mind-shifting, and irresistible. We require an endless supply.

Each story takes you gently by the synapses and leads you along some ordinary/extraordinary human path. It makes sudden left and right turns, changes narrator or tense or time frame so smoothly you hardly notice, and stops just when the stopping is good.

The people who people the stories are Canadians, the kind of Canadians you probably wouldn't notice on the street, but Munro knows the

[Use arrows to cont.]

extraordinariness of ordinary life. Often the main character seems to have a second self that floats above her/his body. It looks down and speaks a totally dispassionate reality of itself in the most unself-conscious language.

The language has a surface simplicity and a brilliantly artful communicability. Clearly Alice cares not a whit about what critics think (they are entranced), or what literary fads are current, or how anyone else writes.

The stories spread wide rather than build architecturally. They are uncannily like life, often radically turning direction on an unlikely pivot.

Probably this collection will send you back to the early collections. Lucky you.
___________

    MH Oct. 26, 2012

  "Washington Man"
  by George Packer
  New Yorker (magazine)
  Oct. 29 & Nov. 5, 2012

If you want to know how government works from the inside (and, yes, if you vote, you want to know), Packer's article is a must.

On the surface it is the story of a rise to influence by one Jeff Connaughton. Never heard of him? That's okay, because this long, absorbing article is really about how Washington works, how U.S. is shaped, day by day, year by year. It is an anatomy-of-power, describing the petty and grand human attributes that create behaviors and the behaviors that create relationships and the relationships that create status, influence and therefore history.

Read it!
  ________________

  MH March 27, 2012 

  The Sense of an Ending
  by
  Julian Barnes
  Knopf, 2011

When you finish a novel in two sittings, I guess it can be called a "page-turner." I don't read too many of those books; but when it happens, I tend to feel poorly used, somehow manipulated with my lower nature exploited.

(My last one was The DaVinci Code.  Yuk. The writing was/is so terrible that I felt I must get into the box and confess to the sin of staying with it to the last page. Maybe self-flagellate a bit.)

The Sense of an Ending is much better than that. Its main sin is "plottiness," plot at the expense of more important endeavors. Its other sin is flat, pedestrian prose. No language-lover, Julian.
  [Use arrows to cont.]

Having just finished The Golden Bowl and The Princess Casamassima, I thought, for some pages, that I had moved to the young adult category.

Ostensibly, the goal of this small novel is to examine self-definition, personal memory, and the pitfalls of kidding oneself about one's past.

Or is it to create a page-turner?

The author seems to think that his "sense"--the assigning of blame and the assigning of remorse to a boring main character--is good sense. Uh-uh.

Oh yes, at the end, I was properly zapped in my lower nature (in this case, my gullibility)--but by a slingshot, rather than by art or new understandings.

Greater sense appeared way back on page thirteen when the author puts some words in the mouth of an unusually wise teenager. Asked about whom to blame for WWI, the teenager responds:
  I don't know sir.
  ...
Indeed, isn't the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it's all anarchic chaos, with the same
consequence. It seems to me that there is--was--a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame
everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That's one of the central problems of history, isn't it, sir? The
question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.

And the history of the historian won't do it either.

Barnes tracks a dull main character's self-definitiion from early limits of his experience (all lives are limited experiences!) to a somewhat more experienced conclusion: "the sense of an ending." Barnes' "own cast of mind" is to allow his main character to blame himself for a series of personal tragedies.

Nothing much is gained by this sense, either for the character or for the reader.

What, then, do I ask of a novel? A new understanding, or a new appetite for understanding, and/or the zing of recognition of something true and important. This one didn't deliver much.

However, there is no need to pay any attention to me about reading or not reading the book. I am at odds with my betters on the committee of the Booker Prize. They chose it in 2011. Maybe the "blame" paragraph is worth two sittings.
  ___________

[See also Robert Rue's response on the SQUAWK BACK page; The Sense of an Ending]

  MH Jan. 17..., 2012

  The Reactionary Mind;
  from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
  by Corey Robin
  Oxford University Press, 2011

Mark Lilla (NY Review of Books,
1/12 /2012) seems very annoyed that Cory Robin has exposed the commonalities among many "reactionary," "conservative," right-wingers from the French Revolution to the present.

Lilla complains about Robin's logic:

  Catholic reactionary Joseph de
  Maistre and George Bush are both
  on the right in Robin's scheme;
  following his logic, since Maistre
  spoke flawless French, Bush must
  too. Which would be some national
  secret.

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To assume that Maistre and Bush share parts of a certain tradition does not require that they both speak French! Or share much else. (Robin does not suggest such. In fact, he deals with the issue at some length in the Introduction.) One may, instead, question Lilla's logic.  

The Introduction to The Reactionary Mind may seem like a compilation of some doctoral candidate's note cards. That does not continue. The book leaps up because of the author's lively style and his relentless bringing together of people and ideas that may lie around in your mind in separate compartments, begging for integration.

Robin does not ignore the differences or the evolutions of the right since Edmund Burke decried the French Revolution. For example, he notes how reactionaries have learned to adopt the language of the left, pointing to rightist locutions such as...

  Radical professors have created a
  'hostile learning environment' for
  conservative students.

  The university should be an 'inclusive'
  and intellectually 'diverse' community.

He notes how Phyllis Schlafly insisted that the Equal Rights Ammendment would sabotage women's "right" to be imprisoned in the home!

By way of Maistre, Robin reminds us of how we love to bask in the reflected brilliance and glow of monarchy.

I remember how we blubbered over the wedding of Princess Diana and her Prince. I note that Mitt Romney recently goofed when he called the opposite phenomenon "envy."

Maybe we ought to be aware that the rage factor is rising--not to French Revolution heights, but rising. Nowadays, it may be particularly blundersome to mistake rage for envy or imagine that the ninety-nine are basking-in-the-glow. Surely we have become more sophisticated since Diana.

Robin's chapter on Ayn Rand sent me back to a moldy, brown 1957 paperback edition of Atlas Shurgged, which had languished unread in my library. Oh gawd. What a piece of repetitious, bloated, political/economic drivel. It has only a dollop of sanity, summarized in five words: "keep your brain in gear." Well, maybe two dollops, the second being something like "Live by reason not myth."
I buy those.

But mostly, Rand offers 1084 pages of crimes against the novel. See ATLAS SHRUGGED on the front page.

The essays of Corey Robin keep reminding us how alive the Rand garbage remains in 2012. I note the charming libertarian Ron Paul, for example. (He would leave the corrupt and the murderous "at liberty" to inherit the earth.) There is the vicious Paul Ryan polluting the Congress with kill-Medicare and starve-the-poor bills. Pure Rand. There is the Silicon Valley executive quoted by Thomas Friedman:
  I don't want to talk about
  unhealthy and unproductive
  people. If I don't care about the
  wealth destroyers in
  my own country, why should I
  care about the wealth destroyers
  in another country?
 Pure loopy Rand.

Even though Robin's devastating essay "The Protocols of Machismo" is focused on the Bush years, it now should be read by every Congressperson and official at State who must answer contemporary questions:
  Should Israel and/or the West bomb
  Iranian nuclear sites?

  What, exactly, is "national security"?

  When is preventive war required?
  Ever?
 
  Should the West intervene in Syria to
  save Syrian lives?

  Is assassination ever moral? (Consult
  your thrill at the news that Bin Laden or
  Qadaffi, or even the Iranian nuclear
  scientists had been assassinated!)
 
Robin does not posit commandments. Did I miss them?

However, he makes an interesting case concerning Neocon lust for "manfully confronting and mastering catastrophe." He suggests that, for them, "war remains the great romance of the age, the proving ground of self and nation."

Those leanings make ignoring facts relatively easy.

In 2011 Robin concluded his book with...

  Modern conservatism came onto the
  scene of the twentieth century in
  order to defeat the great social
  movements of the left. As far as the
  eye can see, it has achieved its
  purpose. Having done so, it can now
  leave. Whether it will, and how much
  it will take with it on its way out,
  remains to be seen.

Whaa? Mabe a bit of left-wing, literary machismo is in order here.

PS: Oxford University Press! You were shameless in putting the name Sarah Palin on the cover of this book! She never appears past page 58 and is nearly invisible before that. (Not that I miss her.)

  ____________

 

 

  MH December 2011

E.F.BENSON Old London Series
  The Unwanted (Edwardian)
  Janet (Victorian)
  Friend of the Rich (Mid-Victorian)
  Portrait of an English Nobleman
  (Georgian)

  Appleton-Century Company, 1937

A trip to the Rodgers Book Barn (HIllsdale, NY) [See local page], looking for paperback Jane Austen novels precipitated a delightful Benson discovery: four little novelettes by another sense-and-sensibility-bred descendant of Jane Austen, E.F. Benson.

They are of a size to give you happy hands (7.5" X 5.25"). The boards are a deep red and the endpapers are exuberant period drawings by Reginald Birch. They even smell interesting.

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But the stories! Start with The Unwanted. An unsentimental, devastating portrait of a woman alone (See Emily Alone, left. Oh yes. How reading often bundles themes and styles into a short period of time out of sheer serendipity!)
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Janet is a vivid and relentlessly real woman.

Friend of the Rich is a wicked indictment of snobbery and class distinctions mined for personal gain.

Finish your Benson treat with Portrait of an English Nobleman for the ultimate moral demolishment of the Georgian upper class. The satire is funny-icy cold, offering you only smiles of recognition.

You probably know Benson from his famous Lucia series of novels. They are the source of my musical QUEEN BEE, and a favorite of snappy British television devotees.

Read them for the ancestry of many of our sillier conventions and hypocrisies.

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