Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book review: Girl With A Pearl Earring


Book review: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

slim offering of historical fiction about Johannes Vermeer's enigmatic portrait of an unknown young girl, circa 1665.

It's a breathtaking, tantalizing love story….tantalizing because Vermeer and the maid, Griet, almost embrace their passion, each stepping over the line without transgression, but not without hurt:

Vermeer, the worldly one, the master, tempted to the edge of the precipice…


Griet, the child innocent, heedless of her woman's heat, trespassing unaware and ever nearer to the mystery that she barely understands in the beginning….

She feels the lush weight of the earring, his fingertip sears her skin, she inclines toward his touch, trembles with a disembodied, virginal start of pain….

Quickly stilled, she sits for him.



He trembles—a long moment—with the rush of desire, masters it, and steps back to his easel, granting her a little more time in the childhood she is leaving behind, giving her a peace that will become a bereavement, a keening memory….

They look at each other, mute, apart yet bound, in flagrante delicto, withering, without joy….


Monday, October 26, 2015

Book review: The Financier


Book review: The Financier
By Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
First published 1912, Harper and Bros., New York.

It's just amazing that Dreiser wrote this gritty novel in 1912, before anyone even thought of derivatives, credit default swaps, sub-prime "liar loan" mortgages and no-fault (for bankers and brokers, that is) national financial meltdowns. Frank Cowperwood is the ethically-challenged "financier" whose star and fortunes rise so marvelously and then collapse with equal flare. He seems so absolutely convincingly contemporary that I had recurring transient episodes of reverse déjà vu as I followed his desperate ambition and burnout.


Frank is a first-rate villain. He burns his friends and enemies with equal disdain, he channels Gordon Gekko with suitably theatrical energy, and he is most deliciously unrepentant when his schemes go awry, his loans get called and his empire crashes around him.

I say "deliciously unrepentant" because, unlike the contemporary villainous free spirits of Wall Street, Frank promptly goes to jail for his crimes.

The Financier so obviously is the kind of novel that might be written by a baroque clone of Michael Lewis. If you'd like to work out a bit of the residual rage you feel about the man-made financial cesspool we  wallowed in for the last few years, try this American classic.

Dreiser

  



Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Book review: The Comanche Empire


Book review: The Comanche Empire
Hamalainen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.



This book will change your mind about how the West was won.

Hint: The Comanches got there first.

The Comanches arrived obscurely in the American Southwest in 1706. This book provocatively makes the case that the Comanches created an imposing Southwestern American empire that spanned 150 years. They blunted the 18th century colonial ambitions of the Spanish in Mexico and the French in Louisiana, and stalled the westward thrust of Americans and the U.S. government until the middle of the 19th century. A broad coalition of Comanche rancheria chiefs throughout the territory of Comancheria first dominated the Apaches, eventually turned against their Ute allies, and commercially or militarily subjugated numerous lesser tribes. 

Comanches managed a succession of peace treaties and conflicts with the Spaniards and completely blocked their repeated efforts to extend colonial settlements northward from Mexico. The political, commercial and military supremacy of the Comanches was based principally on their success in adopting and adapting Spanish horses for efficient transportation, military power and a thriving and lucrative trade in horses throughout the Southwest.


 Hamalainen's central argument invites—indeed it provokes—a reasonable dispute about the credibility of his claim for a Comanche empire. In classical political or geopolitical usage, the claim is untenable, at least in part; the Comanche empire had neither fixed borders, nor a single self-sustaining centralized supreme authority, nor a durable bureaucracy, nor a definitive political structure.

Nevertheless, the Comanches had a respected, recurring broadly representative council of chiefs that planned and organized extensive raids, trading and other commerce, and military operations. Their hunting, pasturing and trading territories had indistinct geographic borders that were never surveyed or adjudicated; Comanches never sought to occupy and permanently control any specifically delineated territory. Hamalainen says they were "conquerors who saw themselves more as guardians than governors of the land and its bounties." Nonetheless, the geographical extent of the their domains was well known, respected and enforced by the Comanches.

Each Comanche rancheria had its own geographic territory, rigorous socio-military culture and hierarchical organizational. The situational circumstances of Comanche military superiority, their control of trade  and their ability through the decades to repeatedly impose and maintain obviously favorable terms in their treaty and trade agreements are undeniable evidence of the Comanches' extended dominance of terrain, physical resources, culture and commerce, and, not least in importance, the Spanish and French colonial enterprises that sought to compete with them.

For decades the Comanches set the terms of their success; no competing power could defeat them, and no Indians or Europeans could evade the Comanches' dominance in their domain. Thus, the Comanches created a de facto empire. Ultimately, they were marginalized by a combination of drought that constrained their bison hunting and weakened their pastoral horse culture, disruption of trade which limited their access to essential carbohydrate foodstuffs, epidemic disease that repeatedly reduced the Comanche populations, predatory bison hunting by the Americans in the early 1870s that wiped out this essential food resource, and, finally, by the irresistible tide of U.S. government-sponsored westward migration that pushed American citizens into Comanche territory.

Too bad the Comanches left no accounts of their own. It would be fascinating to hear this story in their own words.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Book review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

A book that makes language an erogenous zone….

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Book review: Bartleby, the Scrivener


A short story by Herman Melville (1819-1891) 
First published 1853 in Putnam's Magazine, and later in Melville's The Piazza Tales in 1856.

If you can read Bartleby without suspecting, nay, without more or less believing that it was written by Dickens, you can take pride in your mental discipline whilst reading. I confess that I briefly searched for Bartleby in my rumpled collection of Dickens, which of course does not include The Piazza Tales.

None of Melville's notorious South Sea elements here. This is straightforward, 19th century prose set in 19th century Wall Street with shabby, luridly eccentric antebellum characters including the narrator and his bedeviled scrivener (copyist), Bartleby.


The circumstances of this desiccated short story are curious, even eccentric, incredulous. The withered and aloof Bartleby is presented, examined and disdained, until his very dispirited isolation makes him the object of the narrator's genuine but increasingly troubled caretaking.

Bartleby's enervating and apparently desperate ennui keep him always a step removed from the narrator's efforts to supply a little humanity in his life.

The scrivener is lonely beyond understanding. He bears almost in silence the emotional poverty that ultimately kills him.

One believes that Bartleby longed, in vain, to be able to repel the Reaper with his simple and inscrutable refrain: "I would prefer not to."

I will prefer not to re-read Melville's tale on a dreary afternoon.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Book review: The Snow Goose

Book review: The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico (1897-1976)
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1960
58 pages

Paul Gallico is an author I need to get to know better. The Snow Goose is my first attempt.


This justly famous short story is surprisingly simple in its construction and densely emotional in its impact. There are familiar plot elements: ugly old man meets beautiful young girl, they develop a close relationship. In some ways one is moved to think of Silas Marner—there are both rich and rigid qualities in their love, never consummated, sharply constrained.

The snow goose imagery is a tiny bit awkward. Gallico uses the obviously proper word pinion repeatedly and not always, apparently, with the same definition in mind, but this is quibbling…despite Philip Rhayader's intimate knowledge of the birds he paints, we're not offered a compelling total image of the bird, what does a snow goose really look like?


The eroticism of Rhayader's relationship with the girl, Fritha, is bursting out of the story repeatedly before the final scenes. It's like the sensual heat of Girl With A Pearl Earring, deeply heartfelt and almost completely unexpressed. Vermeer painted the girl from life; Rhayader painted his girl from memory, a symbolic reflection of his restrained character and the repressed relationship.

The story line of Snow Goose is mostly mundane, Gallico easily sustains a dramatic tension, although the Dunkirk evacuation scenes are almost disembodied, almost a charade with the forced Cockney accents dominating the dialog.

Snow Goose is eminently poetic, the ending that every reader can anticipate occurs with realistic sadness and realistic revelation. Fritha feels the words in her heart: "Philip, I love 'ee." 

The long-patient reader is finally released to wordless exultation.
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Among other treatments, this beautiful short story was transformed to film (television) in 1971 by the BBC and shown on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, with Richard Harris as Rhayader and Jenny Agutter as Fritha. See it in five installments on YouTube here.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The history that didn't happen


Book review:
Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
261 pages

Dowd's A Spirited Resistance provides some examples of considering "history that didn't happen."
For every account of "history that happened" there might be a complementary book of "history that didn't happen."

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.

Thus, the "history that happened" is one of the possible histories that could have happened. It never was inevitable. There is difficulty enough in reconstructing, analyzing and understanding the actual "history that happened." The discovery and illumination of the course of history, however well done, is profoundly insufficient for the student of history.

Any possible, speculative scenario of historical events is a "history that didn't happen." Any version of the "history that didn't happen" is potentially a compelling object of interest, and there are limitless different versions. There is an effectively boundless scope of interest in such histories, and a wide range of probabilities that they might have occurred.

To be clear, popular accounts of so-called "alternative history" or "what if?" history are not suitable exemplars of this theme. An historical treatment that focuses on a single, arbitrary "what if?" scenario for a known historical event or extended historical process is of course a "history that didn't happen," but it is a special case. For example, a speculative presentation of "The South Won The Civil War" can be entertaining overall, even instructive in detail, but it is flawed. The author has the benefit of hindsight and cannot avoid using it. Of necessity, the author must repeatedly, expansively and arbitrarily choose alternative versions of what actually happened; the probability of occurrence of such a single, massively multi-variable alternative actually is vanishing small. Why bother writing or reading it? One may imagine that simultaneous nasty influenza outbreaks might have sidelined all the generals in both camps on July 2 in Gettysburg. The probability of such a scenario is vanishingly small. This scenario may be entertaining, but it does not merit serious consideration. It is imaginable, but it adds little to our understanding of history. The popular "what if?" approach to history is almost always arbitrary, eccentrically narrow and overwhelmingly improbable.

A structured, exploratory consideration of "history that didn't happen" could be useful. Such a structured approach, for example, could include:
·                     examination of the knowledge, values and motivation of historical actors;
·                     identification of realistic, feasible alternative decisions and reactions that might have
                              occurred at specific points in time or throughout an event in process;
·                     analysis of decision factors that were considered or ignored by the historical actors.

This approach envisions a retrospective presentation of history that illuminates reasonably feasible alternative courses of action, and clarifies possible explanations of why the actors did not make such decisions or pursue such courses of action. This concept does not assume and generally would avoid any attempt to prove that any particular alternative decision or action would have been better or should have been chosen. The point of this essentially objective reconsideration of history is to clarify the motives and expectations of the actors, and to gain a broader and deeper appreciation—in analytical contexts framed by hindsight—of what they thought was happening, what they wanted to happen and what they thought was possible or probable, all without the benefit of foresight.

A poignant example is Jared Diamond's question in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It includes a chapter on the almost complete deforestation of Easter Island and the cultural decline of its people who had depended on the trees for canoes, construction material and fuel. Diamond asks: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" (p. 114). By extension, what did the rest of the Easter Islanders say while he was doing it? Of course, with hindsight it's obvious that cutting down the last tree was not a good move. Was it obvious in the 17th century on Easter Island?  It would be interesting to attempt to reconstruct the ax-man's knowledge, values and motive: did he not know it was the last tree? Was he concerned about preserving his essential environment? Did Easter Islanders desire a tree-less landscape? 


Was the last tree worth a million bucks? Forward-thinking, environmentally sensitized Easter Islanders could have started planning earlier to figure out how to conserve a minimum number of trees or develop substitutes for transportation, construction and fuel. What are some possible elaborations about why that didn't happen? Was any such attempt actually made? Was tree-cutting strictly a commercial activity? Were there any social/religious/cultural imperatives regarding tree cutting? Was that ax-wielding Easter Islander a hero or a villain?

Now, back to Dowd and A Spirited Resistance. Apparently, a fundamental constraint to the success of the 18th century pan-Indian prophets on the East Coast was the persistent obstruction of many neutral or accommodationist chiefs who rejected their prophets' call for both violent and spiritual resistance to the Anglo-American authorities and settlers. These neutral chiefs sought to co-exist in relative peace with the Europeans. This internal division among the native Americans and the longevity of the ill-fated nativist movement suggests many questions.

In hindsight, it seems, at least superficially, that the ultimate dominance of the Europeans was inevitable. Did none of the chiefs in the late 18th century recognize this imperative? What arguments did both the nativist and neutral leaders use in their private councils to minimize their prospects for failure? How did their knowledge, values and motives sustain their doomed objectives for decades? Is it possible that the prophets might have been substantially successful if no internal Indian strife had existed?

Tenskwatawa
Dowd says the inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts in leadership actually bolstered the motivation of the nativists, who argued that the neutral chiefs' failure to respect Indian cultural and spiritual values was partly to blame for the degradation of their culture and way of life. Did the neutral chiefs make the same criticism of the prophets? By implication, Dowd suggests that most nativist and accommodationist chiefs were doing their honorable best for their people. This viewpoint should be challenged; can it be confirmed? What was the motivation of the prophets and nativist chiefs? Did Tenskwatawa share personal attributes with Martin Luther King? with Billy Graham? with Elmer Gantry?

What primary military, political, economic and cultural factors were important to the neutral chiefs and to the prophets? Was their strife righteously motivated and conscientiously implemented? How much of it, if any, was simply opportunistic, localized internal wrangling for political power and personal prestige? Did the warriors and the people and the clans who actively supported the chiefs fully understand the implications of their commitments? Did the warriors follow Tecumseh for glory or for their informed vision of a better future? Did any Indian chiefs believe there was a third version of doing "the right thing"?







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Trash talk to King George



The Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and started the Revolutionary War, right?

Wrong. The shooting actually started more than a year before it was written. The document was basically high-toned trash talk to King George III. It was a marketing piece, meant to get "the opinions of mankind" on the colonists' side.

And Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, right?

Wrong. Old Tom wrote the first complete draft. In fact, he used an 18th century cut-and-paste approach, he recycled a lot of stuff he had already written for the Virginia colonial assembly and he cherry-picked other sources. The Second Continental Congress made significant, often politically motivated revisions to the first draft.

This detail and much more fascinating history about the Declaration is offered in Dr. Pauline Maier's book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage Books, 1998).

The Second Continental Congress intended the Declaration to explain and help justify the decision to end the regime of King George in the North American colonies. The delegates had no expressed desire to lay down principles to guide and limit the new American government.

A complete reading of the Declaration now is a powerful experience, but it's a very narrow lesson in American politics. The Declaration is mostly a list of complaints. It's a recitation of the circumstances that preceded and caused the revolutionary work of the Second Continental Congress. It's an excuse for the rebellion, done almost after the fact.

The Declaration is not a prescription for government, it's not a philosophy of government, it's not a political theory, it's not a codification of law and it's not a statement of policy. It's regrettable that Americans do not have a deeply ingrained reluctance to cite or interpret the Declaration without first re-reading it to refresh their understanding of its rather limited nature.

The dramatic and iconic power of a few words in the Declaration is undeniable: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal…" Nevertheless, Maier shows that the delegates to the Second Continental Congress never agreed that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights (the dispute about slavery was largely ignored). The delegates used stock phrases ("life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") from English political theory, with no explicit agreement on how to realize them in the American colonies.

The men who helped usher in the Revolution never troubled themselves to even remotely consider how "the governed" could realistically give their consent to the "just powers" of government (universal suffrage was not even a talking point in the late 18th century in North America). The Declaration is a bona fide icon in American history, but it's not a prescriptive model for government or our political heritage.  As a "workaday document of the Second Continental Congress," it served its purpose—to put King George's transgressions in the limelight—and then was almost forgotten.

A side note:
The Founding Fathers were an 18th century "Band of Brothers," right?

Wrong. They were bitterly divided on many issues, fiercely represented the separate interests of their own colonies, and allowed their personal and business interests to guide some of their actions.

Beginning in the 1820s, almost 50 years after the Declaration was written, Americans began to remember the old revolutionaries as "mighty fathers whose greatness threw into relief the ordinariness of their descendants." Thus began the secular beatification of the men we now commonly revere as the "Founding Fathers." Actually, the first person to introduce the words "Founding Fathers" in the American political lexicon—in 1916—was Republican Senator and later President Warren G. Harding.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.



Friday, October 2, 2015

Book review: The Kingdom of the Kid

Book review: The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up In The Long-Lost Hamptons
By Geoff Gehman (b. 1958)
State University of New York Press, Albany, NY 2013
238 pages



I stepped outside my comfort zone to read Geoff Gehman's memoir about some of his childhood years in the "long-lost Hamptons." I'm glad I did.

If you have a particular point of view about memoirs, either for or against, try to forget it and pick up The Kingdom of the Kid, and just settle in for the ride.

This is more than a prosaic romp through childhood memories, it is a paean celebrating a child's-eye-view of life.

Gehman is a writer who likes to "linger over words," that's my kind of writer. His prose, his stories, his memories…sassy, salty and singular.

Gehman is a poet, too. Repeatedly, he offers lush insight into his industrious youth, his friendships with the young and the old, his affinity for the place, the "long-lost Hamptons" where Geoff and his pals spent the good old days.

He describes the scene as he observed mourners in the Wainscott Cemetery:
"…I sat on my bike in the school parking lot, shaded by grand sycamores, and watched visitors treat the cemetery with reverence. They placed flowers by graves, prayed on their knees, cried on their backs. They stared at the sky, held séances in broad daylight, eavesdropped on eternity.

"Those pilgrims taught me the morality of mortality. Without asking anyone I learned to walk around the stones, to respect the dead as if they were alive."

In every chapter he offers another little piece of his heart.

Good reading. Real good.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.