Monday, June 29, 2015

Outliers: The Story of Success

I vowed never to read another Malcolm Gladwell book.  Not because his books are not excellent on some level, but from some odd sense of things missing.  Maybe it has something to do with his flow of ideas and theorizing; in popularizing certain notions from sociology or psychology, he tends to leave out alternate views on the subject (and there are many) so he can create a seamless narrative which drives his point home.  He makes  social science a sleek racing yacht, when often it is a leaking dingy.

This is much the case with Outliers: The Story of Success.  Unless you think that success comes to those who are incredibly gifted and talented and do not have to work at all for their achievements, then Gladwell’s initial thesis is hardly shocking.  Most of us who even give it a moment's  reflection realize that hard work is the to key to even the possibility of success, especially among the incredibly talented. Young Bill Gates wrote code for hours on end to hone his skills; the Beatles played seven hour gigs in Hamburg for seven hours a week, for months on end.  Success and mastery of any task or job takes not only talent, but years of hard work.  This is no great insight.

The second part of the book is far more interesting.  Gladwell examines how success is predicated on where we come from, our family, their wealth, their education, their involvement in the life of their children, and the attitude inculcated by parents to successful children.  Here Gladwell topples some more well-entrenched notions of class and success, and the book here is more enlightening than in the first part.  He shows how among lower class students, school situations can be designed to successfully replace the lack advantages of upper class children and give lower class children a shot at success.

So, despite my vow to never read another Gladwell book, I will probably do so anyway.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image

Joshua Zeitz’s Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image is a fascinating study of Lincoln’s personal secretaries, men who played more the part of chief of staff than modern, contemporary secretaries.  In their early to mid-twenties, both young men exercised great power in their control of access and work flow to Abraham Lincoln; in the post war years they became two of his greatest advocates in framing his image for posterity.

Zeitz has written a fluid account, focusing on Hay and Nicolay’s life trajectory, while at the same time contextualizing them in their time.  He also explains in great detail their work on the massive, multi-volume biography of Lincoln (the only authorized Lincoln biography, carefully supervised and edited by Todd Lincoln) which they worked over a decade to complete.  This work, in many ways, still dominates the field of Lincoln studies. 

Hay and Nicolay come across as very interesting men.  Both were talented, yet a great deal of their success was due to luck as well as fortitude.  Like Lincoln, difficult times brought out the best in them, a level of talent which may have lay dormant otherwise.  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

No Room: an old poem given new life

No room at the crowded junctures                         
He was edged out by jumbled heaps
He gathers the stones, only to scatter them
He plants the moss, only squeeze it dry
He haunts the ruins, only to utter a peep and stomp!
The earth turns fitfully, displeased

No room at the midnight inn so
He rummages at the crossroads for stick
He seeks solace in a sliver of moon ray
He stumbles on, aping a sky-god
He doesn’t know, perplexed
By the muted light of sun and moon
And Venus and Mars to hide
With the his brothers on the floor

No room below the cornice
He planed the floorboards too dry
He fitted the plasterboard slantwise
The house comes tottering down!
The stars chant a ditty, a little lament
There are pleased.  Why blame them?

No room in the room he built
He lost his dayglow dream of light
He stutters the words of his time
He edges, like a snail on garden slate
He crawls, leaving a trail of spittle
As the floor drops to no room black

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Phil Klay Redeployment

 In one of the final stories of Phil Klay Redeployment, a series of short stories on or about the experience of the Iraqi War, two characters discuss war films, ending with Full Metal Jacket.  They agree that young people became Marines from watching that movie than any other.  One character replies “And that is an anti-war story,” and the other counters: “there is no such thing as an anti-war story."

Here Klay makes an excellent.  Even the most radically anti-war stories wind up, ironically, making war look like something noble and heroic.  I believe this is primarily because war is at its essence is experiential: the sights, sounds, smells, fear, can’t be  reproduced in any medium.  So what do we get?  Movies like Saving Private Ryan, which despite the stark realism of its beginning ends with a message of redemption, as if war, in the conclusion, is more than the accumulated bodies dead and maimed. Only very brave story tellers like Folman's in Waltz with Bashir jars and disenchants his audience with the false appeal of war.

Klay’s Redeployed does a good job of avoiding these pitfalls.  All of the stories stress the great cost of war to those who wage it; when they are done experiencing this, the most harrowing of human endeavors, they find little solace and redemption.  The damage, physical, mental, or both, is done, and nothing can reverse it. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience

Living the Life of Jewish Meditation: A Comprehensive Guide to Practice and Experience by Rabbi Yoel Glick is a guide to meditation in a Jewish style, although Glick is not afraid to delve into other traditions to shore up Judaism’s sometimes faltering credentials as a contemplative religion.

The truth is that Judaism is not strictly a meditative or contemplative tradition.  For most of its history, meditation, contemplation, and mystical experience was always the province for the very few; with the possible exception of many forms of Chasidism, which created a mass movement stressing a popular mystical-Kabbalah, Judaism in its mainstream forms is about halakah, community prayer, and the proper adherence to divine instructions.

Despite this, Judaism does have a meditative/contemplative current. But examples are few and far between.  If you read many books on Jewish meditation, you will read the story of the sages who sat and hour before prayers and hour after; of the Holy Ari who spent seven years in a hut along the Nile contemplating his great mystical insights.  Perhaps you will read the account of Shimon Bar Yochai’s time in the cave where he received the insight to compose the Zohar.

These are the building blocks of the Jewish meditation tradition. But Rabbi Glick goes further, using examples from the Vedantic Indian tradition and Buddhism to illustrate the cross-cultural applicability of most forms of meditation.  So, if you are very frum, this book is not for you.

Overall, this is a comprehensive work.  Rabbi Glick provides detailed and specific forms of mediation to implement with simple, clear instructions; in the last half of the book, the takes a macro look at the subject, examining how frequent meditation impacts an individual.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Running in the Family

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje is part memoir, travelogue, and history the writer's family in Sri Lanka.  This is an uneven book, perhaps designed as such; it jumps about in time a great deal, taking us back to Ondaatje’s unique family history and the present (written in the late 70s).  There are a few chapters devoted to Ondaatje’s poems, which break the narrative flow. Ondaatje falls into the trap of the “exotic” family narrative, so overused, but his hand is light and he genuinely does have such a family to portray, so why fault him? 

Reading this, I get the feeling that I always do when reading Ondaatje’s work: he is never fully realizing his capacity or vision as writer.   Some inexplicable element, a strange sense of reserve, causes him to either underwrite a sequence or not fully realize its potential.  

This is certainly the case in this work, but to a lesser degree than usual; for the majority of the time, Ondaatje writes  with a sense of urgency and honesty the drives the writing forward. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist is a fascinating, deep exploration of slavery in the United States, and, as the sub-title suggests, its key role in the development of the American free market.

It seems that most modern studies of slavery have argued whether it was integral to the development of the United States, or some sort of bizarre feudal holdover.  Baptist takes the former position, claiming, in fact, that the United States (especially the north) would not have developed into an industrial powerhouse without it.

I am not qualified to judge if his thesis and conclusion is sound.  But I must say that he musters a great deal of facts to support his argument.  A feudal holdover would not have survived in a capitalist economy; slavery continued, and expanded, because it made money for slaveholders... a great deal of money.  Growing cotton has highly profitably, and investment in slave labor was profitable.  Baptist explores how the reach of the global economy of cotton production, the establishment of lines of credit, banking, land speculation, industrial development in cotton production in the north and England, were tied firmly together, driving slavery, it's expansion and cruelty.

This is a well-written, fascinating work, getting involved in technical details when necessary, but keeping the pace and level of a work of non-fiction for a general audience.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Guilt and Suffering: Grave of the Fireflies

When a culture, people, or society can’t and won't protect its children, the wound behind the thin bandage is laid bare.  The disease at the center of existence is transparently seen, for those who look. What turns people away from the most helpless members of their community to abandon them to death?

Grave of the Fireflies tackles this disturbing question.  In this animated film, siblings Setsuko, a girl of four and Seita, a boy of fifteen,orphaned after the allied firebombing raid on Kobe in 1945, are drawn as classical anime characters, but within the context of pure cinema verite.  In other words, the film mixes fantasy and reality in equal doses, creating a world that is at once enchanting and horrifying.  

On another level, Grave of the Fireflies is a condemnation of the Japanese nationalism that led to the wholesale slaughter of civilians on the home islands.  Japanese leaders were willing to sacrifice their citizens to continue to fight an unwinnable war. In Fireflies, nationalism is an obvious front for selfishness.  Characters in this film use the guise of nationalism to support their selfish deeds, just as their leaders are willing to use nationalism to support their narrow political agenda over and above the life and safety of the people they are charged to protect. And since this film was made in 1988, there is an connection of Grave to Japan during the 80s, a decade of economic growth and a turn to radical egotism and consumerism.
Over and over, the question behind the film's sad events wait for some kind of resolution: have the Japanese people become more compassionate since the war?  Have they learned compassion for others through their own experience of anguish, inconceivable pain and loss?  

The film's answer is firmly no. In the final scene, as the ghostly Setsuko and Seita sit on a bench overlooking modern, well-lit, prosperous Kobe, the answer is quietly provided. With ghost-Seita still revisiting the scenes of horror he suffered during the war, redemption is very far off.  As Kobe prospers, he is forced to relive the pain of the past in an endless circle.

And a far larger ghost than that of two small children looms over Kobe:  the uneasy legacy of the war.  Japan inflicted horrible suffering on its neighbors, and in turn, suffered tremendously from allied bombardment on an unprecedented scale. The image of these children's ghosts on a park bench, alone as they were in life, wandering as they did during their malnourished childhoods, is a marker that nothing has been confronted or resolved.  

The conflicted pairing of guilt and suffering still exists in Kobe, and in Japan, and it is still unresolved; and Japan has taken every opportunity to turn away from its tormented past.