Monday, August 24, 2015

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln




Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln certainly lives up to its hype.  By examining the cabinet Lincoln compiled in his first term, Kern shows readers a side of Lincoln that is all too lost in accounts which stress his kindness and sagacity.

Instead, Kern show how Lincoln was able to juggle the competing political agendas of the men around him, harnessing their ambitions both for his own good and the good of the nation during a Civil War.

The Lincoln in Kern’s book is a man who gets people to do what he wants by a combination of patience, excellent timing, and a kind of forbearance of the shortcoming of those around him that seems, at times, nearly superhuman.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Life in Death and Death in Life: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein


After reading this novel long ago in college at 19, I approach it now at 45, and see the profound distrust of life in this novel, and the creeping sense that life and death are both intertwined, with horrifying results.

Victor Frankenstein creates his creature from strong dread of death. He creates life, a function reserved for God and women.  What he gets disgusts him to his very marrow, so much so that he flees the creature immediately after its creation.

This sets in motion yet more bizarre actions and reactions.  The creature evolves to be more fully human than its creator, only to be emotionally crushed by the burden of loneliness and rejection.  He then becomes the “demon” in Frankenstein’s terms, an entity to be destroyed.  He too takes life, as he is unable to create it after Frankenstein denies him a mate.

Finally, in grand Romantic style, they pursue each other to the ends of the earth, Frankenstein intent on destroying the life he made, while the creature finds meaning only in the (negative) attention his creator bestows.

Frankenstein is Romantic in the high tradition of the word.  Nature is the abiding substance, but it has a dark, menacing element. There is ice, rock and towering mountains as the backdrop of the struggle between man and his creature.  If nature is Nature, then it is morally blind, indifferent to the struggles of the living.  

So this novel is far more than a critique of human technological hubris, but of the Romantic dream of creation as the ultimate human goal.  With creation comes death. This novel is replete with images of birth, and abortion.  They are all tied together and can’t be torn apart.

Shelly's vision is grand,horrible, and enduring:  we all must live with the entities we create.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Great Set Up, But Failed Delivery: Phillip Meyer's American Rust






American Rust by Phillip Meyer starts with great promise: a dark novel about young people living in a fading rust belt town, the novel has all the pieces arranged to create a work that is both penetrating and interesting; a work that provides commentary on a part of the American situation while keeping an eye on character and plot.

But Meyer, a very good writer, stumbles on many elements.  Some of the characters provide internal monologues, or more correctly, an altered stream of consciousness on the Joycean side.  But Meyer never quite pulls it off quite successfully: rather than feeling we are in the character’s mind, there is simply the sense that Meyer is trying to pull off a technique he can’t quite master.  Rather than a flow of thoughts, we get choppy sentences. This ruins the sense of flow in the novel in many places.

There are also implausible scenarios involving police procedures, incarceration, and crime investigations.  These are less problematic, unless you are a stickler for such things.  If you are, it seems that Meyer wants to force his plot along certain lines to prove social and political points --- not to provide veracity to his story. In the process, he cuts the legs out from his plot.

Certainly, his characters are interesting, but they suffer from a degree of under treatment.  It is only partially clear why Poe did not take his football scholarship.  Billy English stays to take care of his ailing father, despite his being a genius, and despite the fact that father and son dislike each other;  there is little interplay to suggest some deeper meaning behind their attachment or estrangement.  Poe is willing to take a murder rap for Billy, because of his love for Lee, yet there is no sense that the duo has a love so strong that Billy would do such a thing.  Poe is given chivalrous impulses he never earns.  The main problem is that Meyer has his characters perform acts before he has laid the necessary motivations and groundwork for them to do so.

Meyer appears to have put the cart before the horse: he wanted to write a social story, an important statement about America, but he allowed the social critique to dominate plot and character, and as such, the novel underachieves and disappoints.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism





A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism, by Rabbi Mike Comins, purports to offer new ways for Jewish people to find a Jewish identity outside the (sometimes) stifling confines of the synagogue or domestic routines.

In this effort alone, the book is an admirable venture.  Judaism has far too long been shackled by a formulaic approach to it religious elements ---   fixed and immutable, indoors, related to study and practice.  Often good, but not merely enough for a fully engaged religious life; sure, here and there in the history of Judaism, individuals have ventured forth into the wilderness to find G-d.  If we bracket off the obvious examples in the bible, and the holiday of Sukkot, we have such people as Safed group of mystics in the seventeenth century, singing int in the fields to greet the Sabbath Bride, or Rebbe Nachman sitting in the woods in the nineteenth century, talking passionately to G-d.

But A Wild Faith really is not about such “casual” encounters with G-d as found in nature, and nature as found in G-d.  Rabbi Comins has a program for finding the divine outside the walls of the synagogue, no doubt bolstered, informed, and even propelled by his Torah Trek program. 

I simply do not think a Jew needs such a book or program to go out into nature and experience G-d.  One does not need to be guided toward this path, only opened up to the option that you can put down the siddur, look out the window at clouds, and think about our place in the world.

It is as easy as that.  What comes next is a hard, lifelong pursuit, but you do not not need a view of the Grand Canyon or have an experienced wilderness guide to find God in nature.  Rabbi Comins book may help many people along this path --- but seemed superfluous to me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics



Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler, explores the author's role in the creation of Behavioral Economics, a field which challenges the assumptions of much of classical economics.

Economics is based on the assumption that people make rational decisions that optimize their decisions.  This assumption provides a handy set of axiomatic points to move from, creating all manner of theories of how people go about making choices.  It has the enhanced predictive power of other sciences which proceed from a unified theory to explain the varying phenomenon of nature.

Thaler details the problems with  rational theory.  He explores the early stages of his career as an economist, when he collected counter-instances to the theory of rational expectations.  This leads to the first tentative attempts to form other theories about people's choices and behavior which do not make assumptions about their complete rationality.  Theories like sunk costs and the fungible nature of money appear to be completely out of sync when tested against the reality of how people consider expenses and money. People make mistakes that are not in their best interests because they do not have complete information, or they act upon emotion rather than correct information.

This book shows the inherent bias in any scientific community. Researchers base their entire careers on looking at a field in a certain way, and are very reluctant to set that view aside. Reputation, position, and power can retard the progress of scientific inquiry. Thaler’s book shows that if enough effort is put behind gathering counter-instances in a field, eventually even the most ardent critic must take note. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lily’s King’s Euphoria



Lily’s King’s Euphoria holds so much promise, and the fact that the novel fails to maintain it, makes reading it so much more of a disappointment.  

King starts with an excellent premise, an exotic location, and an intrinsically interesting psycho-sexual dynamic.  All the pieces are there to assemble a first rate, or even a masterful novel.  

But after a strong start, King simply runs out of steam.  The three main characters are clearly drawn, their motivations, passions, and intellectual inclinations are clear, but as the novel progresses, King appears to be at a loss as to what to do with this set up.

Sot there are abrupt endings, inexplicable disappearances, and in general, the sense that the novel has been left dangling there, unclaimed, a low hanging fruit never picked.