Maybe Huck was right

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest StatesAgainst the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There has long been a debate over the merits of the life of the "civilized" human being over that of the "noble savage," one that seemingly turned decisively in favor of the modern state as the European empires expanded over the last several centuries. As the Thomas Hobbes memorably stated in his description of the state of nature, “and the life of man, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” But what if Hobbes was wrong? Perhaps if he had considered the lives of London slum dwellers and American slaves versus the hunters and gatherers who persisted in much of Africa and the Americas at the time, he might have reached a different conclusion. History, after all, is written by the victors.

Perhaps the concentration of power in urban centers with its attendant dependence on a restricted diet of monocultures, especially grain, its problems of sanitation, concentration of germs and parasites and susceptibility to epidemic disease, its submission to the tax gatherer, and its imposition of the round the clock drudgery of agriculture and industrial life, was not a material improvement for most people over the free ranging life of our ancestors. With its diseases and hardship, was civilization worth it? James Scott's Against the Grain, provocatively poses the question, even if it does not fully settle it.

Modern man has in effect been domesticated; we have lost the skills necessary to survive in the wild. There is an easy assumption that people living off the land were weaker and stupider than their urban and agricultural counterparts, and yet for much of the last several millennia, it was the poorly nourished and disease-ridden domestics who were weaker, less well nourished, and comparatively far overworked.

“Nomads, Christopher Beckwith has noted, were in general much better fed and led easier, longer lives than the inhabitants of the large agricultural states. There was a constant drain of peoples escaping from China to the realms of the eastern steppe, where they did not hesitate to proclaim the superiority of the nomad lifestyle.”

The assumption has also been that because people lived in the wild, they led a haphazard and unplanned existence. Anyone who has ever been even on a short camping trip, however, knows the importance of meticulous planning, and the supposition that the multifarious bounty of the land was less reliable than the laborious cultivation of single grains notably subject to crop failure may be misguided.

Scott argues, in contrast, that life outside the modern state was a rational and healthy choice for most of humanity for most of its existence. The rise of the modern state, with its bureaucracy, written records, monumental architecture, standing armies, and above all its tax collector is an aberration not a norm. The initial reasons for the adoption of the state form are not wholly clear in light of its obvious epidemiological disadvantages, its imposition of additional labor, its nutritional deficits, and its deprivation of freedom.

“There may well be, then, a great deal to be said on behalf of classical dark ages in terms of human well-being. Much of the dispersion that characterizes them is likely to be a flight from war, taxes, epidemics, crop failures, and conscription. As such, it may stanch the worst losses that arise from concentrated sedentism under state rule.”

Literacy, or rather initially numeracy, increased in states where it was necessary to track and inventory not only grain, but also people, who quickly became the nascent states' most valuable commodity, whether as citizens or slaves. Scott suggests that the rejection of literacy by people outside the state in favor of oral culture was part and parcel of a rejection of the state's assertion of control over its citizens through walls, taxes, and violence. Scott quotes one researcher as posing the question:

“[Why did] every distinctive community on the periphery reject the use of writing with so many archaeological cultures exposed to the complexity of southern Mesopotamia? One could argue that this rejection of complexity was a conscious act. What is the reason for it?

Perhaps, far from being less intellectually qualified to deal with complexity, the peripheral peoples were smart enough to avoid its oppressive command structures for at least another 500 years, when it was imposed upon them by military conquest. . . . In every instance the periphery initially rejected the adoption of complexity even after direct exposure to it . . . and, in doing so, avoided the cage of the state for another half millennium.”

When the infant states of Mesopotamia crumbled every few generations, as they regular did in the face of war, plague, famine, or political infighting, the reversion to life outside the state was not necessarily a disadvantage to their erstwhile citizens. So long as the option was available, a free life dispersed amidst abundance may often have been preferable to confinement behind the city walls.

“The abandonment of the state may, in such cases, be experienced as an emancipation. This is emphatically not to deny that life outside the state may often be characterized by predation and violence of other kinds, but rather to assert that we have no warrant for assuming that the abandonment of an urban center is, ipso facto, a descent into brutality and violence.”

Ironically, Scott points out that such defensive works as the Great Wall of China were actually constructed as much to keep citizens in as to keep "barbarians" out. The rise of the state itself was only possible with a confluence of systems designed to keep people under control in order to produce the grain surplus necessary to sustain a class of citizens not directly engaged in procuring or providing food. Only this kind of surplus made possible a specialization of labor, and the surplus was achieved by virtue of walls, taxes, armies, literacy, and slavery, which Scott argues is a foundation of the modern state throughout most of history.

(In that sense, the Confederacy may have been more than a throwback than an aberration. It is noteworthy, although often overlooked, that both Classical Greece and Rome were sustained by large slave populations. Moreover, even today, our modern civilization in dependent on exploitation of labor under conditions approaching slavery, whether it be Foxconn or Federal Prison Industries, and literal slavery is not extinct. As George Orwell pointedly remarked in his essay on Kipling, "We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.")

For centuries after the rise of states, citizens and non-citizens of states lived in an uneasy equilibrium, with the latter far outnumbering the former. The concentrated wealth and manufactures of states were both a source of trade and of plunder for stateless "barbarians," whereas the "barbarians" provided transport and often protection upon which the states depended. State relationships with non-state peoples often took the form of a protection racket; states paid "barbarians" on their frontiers not only not to attack them but to protect them from other attackers. Rome paid generous subsidies in the form of "gifts" to the Huns and the Celts in return for nominal recognition of Roman suzerainty.

Scott does not deal extensively with the factors that ultimately tipped the balance in favor of the modern state, the near eradication of stateless peoples, and the "domestication" of virtually the entire human race, but he does suggest that the invention of gunpowder – which ended the advantages of cavalry – and the urban-incubated European epidemics which swept the New World were decisive factors in tipping the balance and ending the "golden age of the barbarians."

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Work Better, Not Harder

The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and EnergyThe Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The danger of books on productivity is that they seduce you to spend more time on reading about productivity than actually producing. Fortunately, Chris Bailey had done much of the heaving lifting in his year long (and ongoing) study of productivity, a product of both extensive research and sometimes bizarre personal experimentation (e.g. working 90 hour weeks, drinking only water, and isolating himself completely for a month) to measure environmental impact on productivity. In the course of year, he summarized his findings in this tightly written manual and continues to do so on his blog.

Bailey's mantra is managing energy, focus, and time, with time a distant third. Time, after all, is fixed; what we mean by managing time is managing ourselves. This is not to discount the value of organization, but merely to point out that "managing our time" should be more aptly seen as maximizing our return in the time we have.

To that end, maintaining adequate energy to complete our tasks and adequate focus to avoid being distracted are key elements. Among Bailey's many insights, two of the most obvious but most overlooked are that the principal productivity killers in modern American life are lack of sleep and overwork.

Not only is it clear that lack of sleep — a common American disorder — impairs judgment, saps energy, and obscures focus, but also the Protestant Work Ethic fails to take account of the law of diminishing returns. Bailey quotes studies that find, for example, that after 60 hours of work, "in order to accomplish one more hour of work, you need to work two hours of overtime." Another study finds that after 55 hours, most people accomplish nothing at all. In fact, from a productivity standpoint, the ideal work week is 35 hours. pp. 97-98. None of this, of course, takes into account the fact that people who claim to put in 80 hours of work a week are generally lying.

Bailey's approach is to work better not simply work more. The reward is that when you maximize the returns of work, you leave more time for the things that matter most to you, and if you don't know what those are, you are missing the point entirely.

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Against the Tide

Free State of JonesFree State of Jones by Victoria E. Bynum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't often pick up a book after seeing a movie, much less a movie trailer, but in this case I am glad I did. Victoria Bynum presents a detailed history of a rebellion of small farmers, deserters from the Confederate Army, and escaped slaves against the Confederate slave holding aristocracy. Loyal to the Union, Captain Newton Knight successfully fought off repeated Confederate cavalry raids from 1863 to the end of the Civil War, and was notorious throughout the next century not only for his successful resistance to the "Lost Cause," but also for his extended mixed race family. Knight has been alternately lauded for his daring and initiative in fighting off the Confederate Army and sustaining the people of a poor county in Mississippi and vilified for his defiance of the South's increasingly draconian segregation. Despite Professor Bynum's measured academic tone, the moving story of a gallant band who stood fast against the dark tide of secession and segregation shines forth. I highly recommend this book not only as an antidote to racist Southern mythology but also to the caricature of the South as uniformly illiterate and bigoted. Careful in its analysis, this story is also refreshing and inspirational in its humanity. One place where interested readers can continue the conversation is Professor Bynum's blog, Renegade South.

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In the Habit

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday LivesBetter Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reviewers of Gretchen Rubin's books tend to fall into one of two categories: those who like her and those who don't. Given her mania for categorization, this is a distinction that Rubin herself might appreciate. However, it seems all too often that evaluation of the book never progresses beyond a visceral reaction to the author's personality. Personally, I find her self-assured epigrammatic style rather engaging, although others sometimes view her as a condescending know-it-all.

Perhaps, therefore, it is no accident that Ms. Rubin's favorite author is Samuel Johnson, the biggest know-it-all in the English language. Johnson is saved from being completely insufferable by wit and insight, and one might well say the same of Ms. Rubin. Her behavioral categorizations — criticized by some with a sniff as "unscientific" — are nevertheless a useful heuristic for separating different kinds of personalities. And Ms. Rubin's observation that when it comes to habits, one size does not fit all is a refreshing change from the singlemindedness of many "self help" books. Ms. Rubin is surely right when she observes that we can learn a great deal from people who are different from ourselves, and this is nowhere more evident in this quirky analysis of habits and how people form them.

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Drowning in Data

Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)Dataclysm: Who We Are by Christian Rudder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the advent of the last decade, we have been awash in an ocean of data, but we have only just begun to chart the wind and tides, much less plumb the depths.

Christian Rudder's Dataclysm offers a few sharp insights into the power of Big Data both to analyse us in the aggregate and profile us on a personal level. Rudder's focus, mercifully for us, is on the aggregate, but whether we are gay or straight, pregnant or not, sexually active or celibate, or in the market for anything at al, we cannot hide our digitized identity.

The main focus of Rudder's book, however, is on what Big Data can tell about ourselves as a people not ourselves as persons, whether it's age preferences of men and women looking for dates, racial biases in the evaluation of attraction, disease trends, or pharmaceutical dangers. Even as Rudder celebrates the power of data to reveal truths about us hitherto inaccessible to the most sophisticated pollster, an undercurrent of anxiety about the manipulative power of large organizations in a world without privacy runs through the book. But now that we are all at sea, we must navigate as best we can.

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A LIfe in Full

Lawrence Of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. LawrenceLawrence Of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence by Jeremy Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose, that in one sense, one has to be really interested in T.E. Lawrence to enjoy all 915 pages of this massive biography; I am, and I did. For those interested in a contemporary history of the Revolt in the Desert, I would recommend Scott Anderson's excellent Lawrence in Arabia. This biography is devoted to Chapman/Lawrence/Ross/Shaw the man, from beginning to end, and is particularly interesting for its treatment of his later life and work during his post-war stints in the R.A.F. and the tank corps, a part of his life that is typically scanted. It was enough to make me decide to pick up copies of Lawrence's account of the his years in training at the R.A.F.-- the Mint -- and his translation of the Odyssey, generally acclaimed at the time, something to look forward to as the epic is a personal favorite (although I know know not a word of Greek -- perhaps in another life). One gets a sense not only of Lawrence's intellectual brilliance, but also of the profound trauma of the war -- from which he never really recovered -- and its deformation of his later life. Turning the last page leaves one with a sense of Aristotelian tragedy -- purgation through pity and terror.

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Life's Regrets and a Lost World

An Artist of the Floating WorldAn Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Artist of the Floating World evokes a lost world of artists' lives in the pre-War Japanese demi-monde against the rise of strident propaganda leading up to the catastrophe of the War. At one point, the narrator, Mr. Ono, a painter, describes his masters' geisha paintings as updating a classic 'Utamoro tradition' in order to "evoke a certain melancholy around his women, and throughout the years I studied with him, he experimented extensively with colours in an attempt to capture the feel of lantern light." Even as Ono turns his back on this "floating world" to create a "new Japan," the war consumes his old pleasure district, leaving only ashes, fertile ground for Japan's new Americanized business culture.

Against this backdrop, an Artist of the Floating World is a novel of guilt and remembrance, perception of self and perception of others, a brief journey in which Mr. Ono must confront the legacy of destruction he helped create and the passing away of the fragile aesthetic he once cherished.

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Courage in the Face of Terror

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim FundamentalismYour Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is a strain in American popular thought and foreign policy which can perhaps best be paraphrased by a t-shirt I remember from the seventies. Purporting to quote the Airborne, it said, "Kill them all: let God sort them out." This is the same attitude that has justified successive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone killings, and the infamous use of torture by U.S. intelligence services. Not only is such an approach morally repellent, but even the most hardened advocate of Realpolitik should be able to see by now that it is ineffective. Thinking that we have removed the cancer of Saddam Hussein, we have created the constantly metastasising Islamic State. Our cynical reflex is either to prop up brutal dictators like Abdel Fatteh El Sisi or the brutal Saudi regime when they serve us, or to obliterate their countries when they don't.

Karima Bennoune's insightful book suggests that there is a third approach, superficially less attractive and certainly more difficult, but morally appropriate and more conducive to long-term success. Bennoune is the daughter of an Algerian university professor and intellectual who survived the nineties in Algeria under constant threat from fundamentalist death squads and yet maintained a principled support for civil society. Inspired in part by her father's example, Bennoune has woven together the stories of courageous dissidents in the Muslim (mostly Arab) world who despite the neglect of Western media and human rights organizations, have continued to attempt to navigate the Scylla and Charibdys (her metaphor) of fundamentalist terror and state oppression.

Bennoune boldly, and I think correctly, asserts that the first bulwark and the last refuge against these twin evils is assertion of the rights of women in civil society. Women's rights are consistently among the first targets of fundamentalist violence, and state sponsorship of religion quickly curtails the rights of everyone who does not conform to the ethos of the prevailing regime. Thus it is no surprise that many of Bennoune's heroes are women who have opposed fundamentalist terror, both those who have risked or lost their lives and those who bear witness to the slaughter of their family and friends. In this sense, this is not an easy book to read, in light of the scale of suffering and the gruesome tactics employed against anyone who dares stand for simple human values.

One more point that Bennoune makes quite tellingly, however, is that however neglected they may be, the courageous champions of civil society, democracy, women's rights, and the rule of law whose struggles she memorializes are largely Muslims or at least citizens of Muslim states. Bennoune is at pains to shatter the perception that the Muslim world is no more than a seething cauldron of radical Islamism, and she issues a cri de coeur on behalf of the people in Muslim societies seeking to build — and rebuild — civil society.

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The Birth of the New World from the Unexpected Perspective of its First Arab Explorer

The Moor's AccountThe Moor's Account by Laila Lalami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fall of the tiny Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492, marking the consummation of the Spanish reconquest and the division of the Iberian peninsula under Spanish and Portuguese rule, generated a ripple whose shock wave ultimately resounded throughout the world, not least in Spain's neighbor the Sultanate of Morocco. As the last remnants of the glittering kingdoms of El Andalus fled across the straits to North Africa, Ferdinand and Isabella were able to employ the fruits of victory in financing an obscure Genoan adventurer on a desperate voyage to the Indies. In one of history's greatest accidents, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, setting off a chain reaction of disease, conquest, and exploitation that swiftly overturned the established order in the New World to the unimaginable enrichment of the Spanish empire. The dazzling success of Cortes in Mexico spurred the Spanish nobleman Panfilo de Narvaez to mount an expedition to la Florida in the buoyant expectation of outdoing his predecessor on the shores of the vast unexplored North American continent. After all, there was every reason to believe that the untold riches of the New World had barely been tapped, and the unmatched superiority of the Spanish fleet at sea and the Spanish cavalry on land had allowed relatively small forces to melt all resistance from the Native Americans like wax in a blast furnace.

It is a commonplace of classical tragedy that the hero is brought low by hubris born of overconfidence in his great strength – whether it be Achilles rushing forward into battle, Odysseus taunting the Cyclops, or Oedipus slaying the king his father and marrying the queen his mother. This story of the Narvaez expedition melds a fast-paced adventure story with the arc of a Sophoclean drama. Abandoning its ships and plunging headlong into the swamps of Florida, the Narvaez expedition drives all resistance before it only to find itself stranded without either gold or food, and its dwindling number of survivors – ultimately only four – find themselves at the mercy of the very Indians they had hitherto so cavalierly murdered and tortured in their monomaniacal– but futile – search for gold. In the end, the only four survivors were three Spanish noblemen – one of whom, Cabeza de Vaca, wrote the definitive account of the ill-fated voyage – and a Moroccan slave known only by his Spanish diminutive – “Estebanico.”

In her richly imagined novel, Laila Lalami recreates the disastrous expedition from Estebanico's perspective, interspersing flashbacks to his upbringing in the Portuguese-dominated Moroccan city of Azzemour with a fast-paced narrative of hardship and danger as the desperate Spanish seek to cut their way out of the trap of their own making in what is now the Southeastern United States. Told from the perspective of a man gradually emerging from slavery in reliance upon the good will of the native tribes, the novel simultaneously offers an empathetic view both of the disastrous impact on native culture of the Spanish incursion and of the ruthless invaders undone by their lust for gold.

Lalami's deft narrative not only conveys a sense of the sixteenth century down to the very diction of the narrator but also creates an impression of scrupulous historical accuracy. In so doing, it provides a kaleidoscopic insight into the intersection of Arab, Spanish, and Native American cultures in the age of exploration from a refreshingly different point of view. Quite apart from being a page-turner, this novel offers a fascinating insight into the devastation of old civilizations and the birth of the modern age.

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Poisoned Justice

Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to WinLaw of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win by Paul M. Barrett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Barrett’s Law of the Jungle is a fast-paced and compelling account of legal corruption and corporate wrongdoing, in which a passionate advocate is undone through his own hubris and unscrupulous pursuit of what began as a noble crusade to rescue the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants from massive pollution by Big Oil. Although the dominant theme is the tragedy of single lawyer undone by his loss of a moral compass, the story could equally well be read as a giant corporation’s escape from deserved liability as a result of the fecklessness of the legal system and the failings of the victims’ advocates. In the end, the Indians of the Amazon are faced with ongoing, unchecked pollution, and the oil company’s victory serves as a cautionary tale to any lawyer who dares to attempt to hold Big Oil accountable for its actions.

The signal failure of the American legal system from the outset of the case was to delay adjudication on the merits for nine and half years while it noodled over the question of forum non conveniens, i.e. where the case could best be tried, and in the end turned over the case at Big Oil’s request to a weak and corrupt third-world judiciary that was wholly unequipped to handle it. Much to the surprise of the oil company’s battalion of high-priced lawyers, in the corrupt world of Ecuadorian politics they were outmaneuvered at every turn by a no-holds-barred advocate whose dirty tricks more than matched their own. It is clear that the oil company was no more principled in its conduct of litigation in Ecuador than plaintiff’s attorney Steven Donziger; its clumsy Armada was simply far less agile and maneuverable than Donziger’s slick fleet of native activists, paid off experts, and corrupt judges and politicians, who deployed a devastating public relations campaign complete with rock stars, investigations on Sixty Minutes, and a canned documentary film, resulting in a $19 billion judgment against Chevron.

Donziger’s dishonest tactics ultimately proved his undoing when Chevron initiated a ruthless campaign against him under the racketeering laws in the American court system after 19 years of litigation – with virtually no cleanup.
Barrett offers a trenchant final chapter of conclusions at the end of the book, which it would be tempting to read first, but one question that lingers is whether the Donziger debacle and subsequent Supreme Court rulings gutting the Alien Tort Statute leave any hope that the rights of indigenous people trampled by American multinationals can be vindicated by legitimate means. Donziger only prevailed in Ecuador because he was more proficient at dirty tricks than Big Oil, but the book leaves open the question whether in light of its refusal to hear the case on the merits in a fair forum, the American legal system has the will or capacity to hold its corporate citizens accountable for their irresponsible actions abroad. In the end, the abiding impression this book leaves is one of deep pessimism.

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Good-bye to All That

Great writers often seem to lead messy lives, and none more so than great memoirists, for tidy lives do not make great memoirs. While not as talented a poet, Robert Graves was every bit as batshit crazy as William Butler Yeats, with more cause, and as with Yeats, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of love with Graves over the decades. As Paul Fussell explains in his magisterial [book:The Great War and Modern Memory|154472] the only way to understand Graves' Good-bye to All That is as a mordant burlesque on the darkest of events. (A commonly cited example is Graves' story about making tea from machine gun coolant.) It may seem irreverent to write about the "Great War" in a comic vein; in fact, it undoubtedly is. But there is no reason that war should be regarded with reverence, and, as Fussell points out, perhaps humor is the only way to come to grips with the horror.

Graves' own approach to Good-bye to All That is perhaps summed up by his comment on life after the War:

I still had the Army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth — it was always easier for me now, when charged with any fault, to lie my way out in Army style.

Graves, Good-bye to All That 287 (Anchor 1985). These are lies in pursuit of a larger truth (as Fussell also points out). Even for someone with the good luck and mental toughness to survive the horrors of the trenches, it must be hard to look back into the abyss straight on. Sometimes, mockery is the only antidote to madness. Sitting here on a Sunday morning in my bathrobe at the keyboard with a cup of strong coffee, it is easy to contemplate the sucking, shell churned mud of half-frozen ditches, swarming with rats, amidst the heavy whine and thud of the shells, the moans and shrieks of the wounded in no-man's land, the ever present fear of gas, and the fatal knowledge that sooner or later one would be ordered to march straight on with bayonet fixed into the stuttering maw of a machine gun. Perhaps not quite so easy to contemplate for one who has lived the experience — a possible explanation for the taciturnity of so many old soldiers.

P.S. As a bonus, for anyone who has ever taught English as a Second Language abroad, see Graves' penultimate chapter on his assignment to Egypt as a professor.

Eat, Drink, and be . . .

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My AppetitesBlue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not so much about the love of food as it is about using food to fill the absence of love. As Tolstoy pointed out, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and that certainly holds true in this fascinating and engaging memoir. Christensen chronicles a series of dysfunctional relationships, from her abusive father to her incompatible lovers, awash in a sea of alcohol and punctuated by bouts of depression. At times, the book seems like an extended therapy session. Christensen, however, not surprisingly, is perceptive, funny, and a trifle acerbic. It is not hard to believe that she is yet another successful novelist with a messy personal life. And for all that food is a proxy for love, the recipes are mouth watering. If only life were as straightforward as cooking.

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God is Dead . . . or is He?

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and IslamA History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A History of God is a good book to instill a little humility into atheists and Christians alike. It is a good book to instill humility into atheists because it deftly explores a wider mystical tradition that goes well beyond the literalism of Western Protestantism against which modern atheism is chiefly a reaction. It is a good book to instill humility into Christians because it exposes the religious limitations of the cramped historical literalism that has proved a cul de sac for modern Christianity.

By definition, the more mysterious God is, the less knowable it is. At the same time, the more knowable God is, the less credible it is. If the notion of God is to be saved, it must be predicated upon the mystical, ineffable, incomprehensible awareness of a divine being that transcends the nature of the physical universe as we know it. The problem then becomes that such a God is not only essentially unknowable but also irrelevant to human affairs. Every attempt to connect God to human affairs makes God at once less mysterious and paradoxically less believable.

On the one hand, the author does provide a fascinating history of the attempts of mystics — from Buddhists to Byzantine Christians to Sufis to Kabbalists — to attain an experience of God by routes other than rationalism. And she has a fascinating insight into the universality and openness of such approaches, which typically recognize the possibility of many approaches to one God. These approaches have the merit of recognizing that what cannot be apprehended by reason should be approached by other means, and there is clearly something to be said for the idea that reason is not the only mode of perception. The more unapproachable and incomprehensible God becomes, however, the less apparent it becomes that its existence or non-existence has any bearing on human affairs.

On the other hand, the literal, personal, interventionist God of Western Christianity has become increasingly untenable thanks, ironically, to Western Christianity's emphasis on literal interpretation of the scripture. The problem with the literal historicity of the Bible is that much of it is demonstrably, provably, laughably false. Quite apart from the question of human parthenogenesis or revivification, my then six-year-old daughter exposed the empirical problem quite succinctly when listening to Bible stories at the County Fair: "There's no way you could fit all the animals in the world on one boat!" People who insist on the literal nature of parables set themselves up for self-contradiction, and people who insist on the parabolic nature of reality open themselves to the charge that they are merely reciting fictions.

Fundamentalists come in different stripes, however, and the author draws a distinction between the cultural conservatism and literalism of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-imperialist reaction of Islamic fundamentalism, which she argues is primarily a reaction to the political evisceration of the Muslim world by superior European technology. As such, she argues, it is marked not so much by anti-scientific obscurantism and as by a fierce desire to reverse European political dominance.

Although the author concedes that "a passionate and committed atheism can be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism," it is clear that she finds atheism an emotionally unsatisfying alternative. After all, her comment assumes that "religious" is a term of approbation and leaves no room for a clear-eyed and dispassionate skepticism that the "force is with us." Armstrong gives a nod to the idea that one can be passionate about the world as it is on the assumption that for all practical purposes we are on our own, but she is clearly unwilling to accept such a view as the final word.

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Captain of the Team

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham LincolnTeam of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a friend of mine remarked on hearing that I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwins' Team of Rivals, "Goodwin had a good subject." This account does its subject justice. It conveys the emotional power of its great subject while persuasively delineating the qualities that forged an obscure Illinois lawyer into the greatest commander and statesman in the history of the United States. While some have suggested that Team of Rivals is primarily about political compromise, it is really about one man's ability to rise above political compromise — the squabbling of his cabinet members and the factionalism of the Republican Party — to forge an unprecedented war machine, crush the rebellion, and eradicate the greatest institutional evil in American history, Remarkably, he accomplished this in the service not of subverting but of successfully preserving America's system of democratic government (a lesson subsequent leaders might take to heart). Ultimately, it is the clarity of Lincoln's moral vision that sets him apart.

The Lincoln We Never See

George Orwell once famously remarked that saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent, and there is no doubt that our veneration for Lincoln the historical giant — "Father Abraham" as the soldiers called him — obscures our view of Lincoln the man. While Goodwin does not shy away from Lincoln's abused childhood, or his mentally ill wife, or corruption in the War Department, one does have a sense that her critical portrait may be slightly airbrushed. There is a bit of a "feel good" quality to her portrait; then again, it takes a very jaundiced perspective or a strong effort of will to "feel bad" about Lincoln.

Sausage in the Making

A little bit of the seamier side of politics does come out in the account of the battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, in which it is pretty clear that Lincoln was willing to beg, bribe, or steal any Congressional vote he could obtain to secure passage, which he narrowly did. His tactics, which are only briefly described, seem more reminiscent of our picture of Lyndon Johnson than of Abraham Lincoln. But perhaps it is as well to have a realistic view of Washington deal-making even in the noblest of causes.

Greater Vision

The strongest sense that one gets from Goodwin's biography, however, is that Lincoln had a vision, moral clarity, and political acumen that clearly transcended those of his admittedly very gifted political contemporaries. In the political chess game, Lincoln was always two moves ahead. And the man who could go from plans for voluntary colonization of African Americans abroad to keeping a governor waiting so the he could speak with "my friend [Frederick] Douglass," and who could grow from the simple preservation of the union to the complete abolition of slavery under the Constitution, is a man of unusual moral capacity. Goodwin weaves a fascinating story of the men in Lincoln's cabinet who formed his "team of rivals," but she leaves no doubt as to who was the captain.

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An NSA Watchdog not an NSA Lapdog

I was deeply disappointed in Congressman Chris Van Hollen's decision today to vote against the Amash Amendment to defund the NSA's massive spying program on patriotic, law-abiding American citizens, a program eerily reminiscent of Eastern European Communist dictatorships and unworthy of a free society. To have a national police force spying on every aspect of every citizen's life, accountable only to a rubber-stamp court hand-picked by George Bush's Chief Justice, is intolerable and un-American. I can safely say that on this day, for the first time, I am ashamed to be a Van Hollen supporter. We need an NSA watchdog not an NSA lapdog.

Hypocrisy Southern Style

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wants to ban any federal aid to Detroit in order to save federal dollars, even as his own state's economy only survives because it wallows in more federal dollars than a pig in . . . you know.

The Fire This Time

I respect people's right to disagree with the tactics of FEMEN, Europe's radical feminist momement that has embraced high-profile topless protests. I understand that not everyone shares their views on religion, or the sex trade, or even dictatorship. I can accept that. But firebombing the homes and offices of the activists is absolutely unacceptable, and all civilized people should stand against it. For those who wish to support free expression and condemn violence, I suggest making a small donation to rebuild FEMEN's offices.

The Killer Angels

The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of whom you may never have heard unless you are a student of the Civil War, was one of the pivotal figures at the Battle of Gettysburg, playing a key role in twice repulsing determined Southern assaults. He is also the most fully realized character in Michael Shaara's Killer Angels, whether he is agonizing over putting his brother in harm's way, coaxing a regiment of deserters back into action, or tending to his men while an old friend dies awaiting the surgeon's knife. But although Chamberlain plays a key role, the action is ultimately dominated by General James Longstreet and the legendary Robert E. Lee.

For this story is as much the story of the failure of the South as of the triumph of the North. And, like Tolstoy's Borodino or Hugo's Waterloo, the real protagonist is the battle itself, from the initial skirmishes at Cemetery Hill to the desperate defense of Little Round Top to the final awful and appalling calamity of Pickett's Charge. Shaara's story is compelling not so much because of the development of his characters, which is deft but not remarkable, but because he gives a thorough and lucid account of what happened during the battle and why, including the ultimate folly of hurling the infantry across an open field against fortified artillery on high ground. Shaara, himself a soldier, muses in the epilogue over why the lessons of Gettysburg seem not to have been learned by European generals in the twentieth century.

I strongly recommend this book not so much as high art but as living history, a crucial explication of one of the most significant events in American history, whose repercussions are felt to the present day.

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Free Speech, Feminism, and Femen

Sara Salem at has a thoughtful piece on the reasons why she disapproves of Femen's demonstrations in support of Amina Tyler, a young Tunisian woman who was threatened with death by Tunisian fundamentalists because she posted a half-naked protest picture of herself on Facebook. Since I disagree with Ms. Salem on several points, I attempted to post the following comment, which was not published:

It actually seems there has been a lot more coverage of the “problem” of Femen than the murderous response of the Salafists. However you wish to characterize Femen’s protests, they are a non-violent form of expression that should be protected. I am not familiar with the Orwellian Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, but it is hard to believe that any body with such a name has a place in a free society. A proportionate response would be to treat Amina’s demonstration youthful indiscretion as a footnote and the Salafist response as a crime. Instead, Amina is being hounded from the country while the Salafists apparently remain in positions of growing influence. To suggest this is Femen’s fault is classic “blame the victim.”

As far as I know, neither Ms. Salem nor the many other women criticizing Femen's protest so much as said a word in Ms. Tyler's defense while she was receiving death threats before Femen responded with the "Topless Jihad."

I am fully in support of the right of Muslims to practice their religion freely on the same basis as adherents of any other religion. But I am even more committed to the free expression of ideas, even if they offend. The violent suppression of ideas by Muslim fundamentalists or by anyone else is something I abhor, and I think it is a shame that so many feminists seem intent on putting cultural relativism before free speech and opposition to violence against women whose style of protest does not suit them.