Thursday, December 7, 2017

Science & Poetry: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

In The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes explores how science, which emerged in a strictly Enlightenment/Rationalist era, came of age during the Romantic era.  

For science in the Romantic Age, poetry and science, art and rational thinking merged.  The great scientists of this time socialized and worked with poets like Shelly and Byron, producing science that was both rigorous in its methodology, but often poetic in its expression.  

This marriage eventually ended in divorce .  By the Victorian Era, science and poetry departed company.  For Holmes, this is detrimental.  This quote sums up his view:

The old, rigid debates and boundaries — science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics — are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.

Generally, this book is interesting and informative.  The structure of the work can be confusing.  Holmes introduces characters, then other characters, then loops around again to previously discussed material.  This mars the flow of the book, placing it somewhere been a demanding text and a popularizing work.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Literary Zombies: Colson Whitehead's Zone One

Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, a post-apocalyptic zombie work written by this, a literary fiction writer, suffers from the same flaw as the one other work I have read by this writer (The Intuitionist): it starts off fundamentally slow.  Painfully slow. 
Of course, this is the kiss of death for a narrative. It takes Whitehead nearly 70-100 pages to really get a head of steam on this work.  The urge to toss the book aside is strong (and I did so once, only to come back).  His propensity for tangents, his excessive wordiness, buries the narrative flow.

How can Whitehead get away with this fatal trait?  Part is his reputation.  If it were any other writer with a propensity to stumble just right out of the gates, the literary power types would move on; but Whitehead is different, and this is overlooked.

But to be fair, the novel does have many virtues.  Whitehead’s deadpan delivery oddly suits the world he has created.  His protagonist, Mark Spitz, survives not because he is special – but by virtue of his mediocrity.  He is a man who tip toed through the world before the disaster, not making a big splash, while not failing either, and this middling existence contributes to his survival.  He is a man with low expectations, and this new world delivers.  In the end, it is the character's odd sort balance with a shattered world that rescues this novel.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Our Police State: The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi, explores the growing gap between the rich and poor in our country, especially in regard to the criminal justice system.  A few have complained that this book lacks methodological rigor; it doesn’t have graphs and charts to provide evidence of this phenomenon. But they something crucial here: the author is writing journalism, and sticks to specific stories of people. Yes, he writes about wider trends, but the narrative is always story driven.

In a way, Taibbi is not telling a new story.  Wealthy white men in American have always had laws that applied specifically to them, or did not apply, as the case may be, while people of color, particularly African-Americans, have been subject to a different, harsher set of laws.  This has always been the case (as it is with all minorities, and women). What is new is the scale.   In post Great Recession American, we have become a society ruled by oligarchs from Wall Street who operate above the law.  Financial firms do pay fines for gross wrongdoing, but no one ever goes to jail.  But in black neighborhood, stop and frisk laws, and “broken window” policing, keep minorities under the tight grip of a police state.

Taibbi’s prose presentation might be a bit adolescent at times, but that does not take away from the importance of his book.  He is angry, as we all should be, about the state of our state.  We are now a bifurcated as a society; and this divide is only getting worse, much to the determent of our democratic institutions.  Shy of a vast progressive movement with widespread support, it may already be too late.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Grinder: Acceptable Loss: An Infantry Soldier's Perspective by Kregg P. Jorgenson

I started Acceptable Loss: An Infantry Soldier's Perspective with some misgivings.  From the title, it looked like it would be a glorification of war.  But Jorgenson writes about the experience of war with nuance.  

He takes to soldiering in Vietnam with alacrity, volunteering for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, where Rangers are dropped close to NVA positions. They spend five days in the field, careful not to engage the enemy, trying to gather intelligence on NVA positions.  With only five man crews, not engaging the enemy is all important. But things go wrong, of course, and Jorgenson is wounded in a firefight.

The reader gradually realizes that  a nineteen year old in combat becomes less effective once wounded.   The author can no longer be a LRRP.  On his second assignment, he rescues downed helicopter crews.  While with this crew, Jorgenson is wounded twice, totaling three times – three purple hearts.  He wins the silver and bronze star.  By the end of his tour he is running the camp's enlisted bar.  His friends have rotated out, and he will be gone soon as well.  The war is no longer his war.

It is hard not to see Jorgenson’s  point: a war takes young men and woman, burns away their effectiveness, and then brings more young men and woman to replace them.  Some are wounded, and other die - but all are stamped by the war.  This cycle is particularly grim considering the overall tenor of the Vietnam War.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Class & Gender: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters novel, The Paying Guests, showcases this author’s distinct ability to take a momentary emotion, a fleeting feeling fed by a glance, a touch, a smell, and then shape her words into a multilayered and dense examination of our emotional lives.  

Waters has this touch, and more; she manages to create the world of 1922 England which we expect, but seldom to never does she rest on cliche or stereotype.  This novel is about gender and class in a typically English way, but Waters brings a fresh edge to these well-worn topics.

Perhaps the novel goes on for too long.  Toward the end, events grow belabored as the novel takes a sudden and dramatic turn.  This blemish is forgivable given the first three fourths of the book.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Zap: a novel, by Svetlana Lavochkina

Svetlana Lavochkina’s novel “Zap” offers readers a rare combination of a well-written, smart novel, combined with biting, often bawdy humor.  

The author knows her trade.  She deftly brings the reader through various eras of the Soviet experiment (and the pre-Soviet era) in her native Ukraine with an insider’s knowledge, bringing a verisimilitude of place, a fixation on accurate, often hilarious detail, to an otherwise sprawling, epochal, novel.

I know the author, and this work was long in the making.  The reader will be amply rewarded by the author’s effort.  Lavochkina writes in an English idiom largely of her own making, crafting a work that is unique in the sound and tempo of the language, something a native writer would be hard pressed to construct.

In fact,“Zap” is very different in tone, style, pacing and structure from most novels.  It is a truly singular work, with exceptional insights, style, tone and pacing. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South

In Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South the author explores what he characterizes as “A war launched to preserve slavery [which] succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise.”

In other words, had the south not seceded from the Union, slavery would have probably been preserved in some form or another in America for years to come.  For Levine, the Civil War quickly became a second American Revolution - really a social revolution, as he calls it; the south would not only be defeated, and soundly, but the entire structure of the American Republic would be altered.

In the decades prior to the Civil War, the planter class wielded a great deal of authority in all branches of the government ­­­– far exceeding their size or economic importance.  The war would end that dominance in 1865.  

Of course, this revolution was incomplete.  Levine only handles reconstruction, its failure, and Jim Crow, very briefly.  The promise of the Civil War would not truly be realized into law until the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later.  And we continue to grapple with the issues of the Civil War today.  In a real sense, the revolution is ongoing.