Monday, May 7, 2007

The April Reading List

The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh
Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler
Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute
A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut
Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee

In general, I don't like to shop. In book stores and record stores, however, I can become compulsive. They are dangerous places. One hundred, two hundred dollars can go easily, for no good reason. Luckily, in the continuing era of funemployment, I have been able to keep a pretty good balance, between the buying and the reading.

April, 2007 came and went, with time spent mostly in Rhode Island, minus a few days each in Boston, New Haven, and New York, and a week in St. John. As the weather turns warm and beautiful on the Narragansett shoreline, I ploughed through five books, of which I can recommend none wholeheartedly and three half-heartedly. The revelations of the month are three bookstores, however, that I heartily recommend: Labyrinth Books in New Haven, Symposium in downtown Providence, and the Brown University bookstore on the East Side of Providence. Specifically, if your father has a habit of buying lots of unnecessary academic titles that eventually collect unread in an impressive study, and you can go dutch with your father, then take advantage of the 10 book-30% discount at Brown.

The only book I didn't purchase was AmitavGhosh's The Calcutta Chromosome, which IC handed to me as I was leaving Calcutta in February. Amitav Ghosh ranks among the cadre of erudite and well-regarded Anglo-Indian authors whose work I don't care for much. Not that his work is bad, but more that it lacks, on the one hand, the urgency and conviction that sets your teeth while reading, and on the other, the wit and invention to invite a smile or a knowing smirk.

The Calcutta Chromosome is essentially a ghost story, and as such, there is enough intrigue and inherent momentum to propel you through its two-hundred-odd pages. The novel relates the story of two bureaucrats in some unspecified future dystopia, and hurtles the reader backwards and forwards through time, from New York to Calcutta to mysterious villages in the Indian countryside, weaving a somewhat spooky tale about a secret society of Indian mystics who have figured out how to enable their soul's transit from one body to another.

Anchored to the quest of one of our bureaucratic heroes, Muragan to unravel the supposed mysteries of Sir Ronald Ross' search for a cure for malaria, as related to Antar, our other bureaucratic hero, the narrative weaves in enough weird and spectral elements to catch a few moments fleeting interest, but ultimately, I didn't find the novel to be sufficiently gripping as a horror story.

One minor note to be said about The Calcutta Chromosome - and more broadly, I'd generalize to writers who can stand outside the realist legacy of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and therefore, are wiling to pay more loving homage to Arthur C. Clarke, Agatha Christie, and P.G. Wodehouse - there is a certain charm in a novel that is, in fact, a Victorian ghost story. And I can see how, if I were perhaps a little less jaded or demanding, that it could simply be considered fun, a curl-up novel that appeals to the twelve year old in me. But, unfortunately, I didn't feel this effort was strong enough to carry the day.

Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon is a surprisingly un-cumbersome read for an allegoric novel about the crushing illogic of totalitarian regimes in their effort to negate the soul and intellect of independent-minded individuals, centered around Stalin's Moscow show trials of the Late 1930s. Relating the trial of Rubashov, a high-ranking Party official, accused of plotting against the Party's leader, the slow, brutal acquiescence forced on Rubashov to trumped-up charges, and finally, the devolution, through torture by the state apparatus, of his independent thought and convictions, Darkness at Noon is a very useful piece of literature. The novel provides a clear and nuanced polemic illustrating the grave threat that total subservience to the state and its ideas represented to the individual, and his right/desire to have his own ideas, reflecting a moment in history when the policies of totalitarian states posed a very real threat to each and every one of its citizens.

What is most striking about the novel, however, is how irrelevant it actually feels, given some of the current political issues of the day. Specifically, while many observers lament the Abu Ghraib transgressions as an affront to American values and liberty, these affronts of the American state and military apparatus really have no bearing on the day to daylives of American citizens. Here, manifest, is the separation between totalitarian Russia and America today. Not that there isn't perhaps the same rot at the core of power, the same illogical bending of truth and morality, but rather, that, through some potent mix of democracy, commercialism, and wealth, that rot never threatens the daily lives of your average American. While the U.S. government operates secret prisons, Army officials defend torture as a military tactic, and the Republican party removes non-adherents from its political rallies, there isn't a tangible concern that you or me or anyone we know will be unable to write, much less say or think, whatever we want. Reading Koestler is a helpful reminder of the good, who we are not, and the bad, who we should be careful not to become.

Having heard George Lakoff speak on NPR more than once, and having formed a favorable, if shallowly informed, opinion of the Rockridge Institute, I was keen to read Thinking Points. Unfortunately, the value of the book can be summed up in about a paragraph. Specifically:

Language and how political discourse is framed fundamentally influences what people think about issues and candidates. Framing issues correctly can help align desired political outcomes with the core values of the electorate. Voters respond to candidates, policies, and positions at the level of values and symbols, not issues and platforms. Republicans/conservatives have done a better job at framing the political debate in the last twenty five years than Democrats/progressives. Democrats need to do a better job of articulating their core values, and subsequently, framing political issues, at the deepest levels, centered around those core values, and at more surface levels, using language that frames issue-specific debates in alignment with those values.

These lessons are well-taken and undoubtedly true. Beyond that, I found Thinking Points lacking, for failing to create cogent arguments from a myriad of interesting points, for providing little practical guidance on how to apply the supposed lessons of the book (with the exception of the useful case on Net Neutrality at the end of the book, and for, in general, being a muddle of jargoned language, half-baked case studies, and ill-defined core concepts. Additionally bothersome to me, personally, are the supposed bases of the approach in cognitive science, wrapping common-sense politics in the thin veil of science (let's not get carried away, linguists), and the shrillness of tone in its calls to action ("America today is in danger. It faces the threat of domination by a radical, authoritarian right wing that refers to itself as 'conservative,' as if it were preserving and promoting American values"). Given the hope of the book to serve as a progressive's handbook in communicating our American values and vision, Thinking Points fails to effectively define or communicate core American values, and provides vague and ill-defined advice for practically re-framing the debate.

It is probably worthwhile thumbing through Thinking Points, as there are enough common sense conclusions to be agreed with ("Be authentic and stick to what you really believe. Changing to a position that you do not believe not only lacks integrity, it's a flawed and ineffective political strategy;" "Perhaps the most effective political arguments come not in the form of arguments but in the form of stories;" "For all our political differences, we [conservatives and liberals] share far more ideals in common as Americans that one would think from all the harsh rhetoric...") But unless any of those statements are revelations to you (or unless you are both an incredibly pretentious and also ineffective and out-of-touch political operative), then feel free to skip reading through the entirety of Thinking Points.

More dismaying than the muddle of Thinking Points is the state of American politics, and particularly, the ascendancy of a brand of "conservatism" that appears, in its most generous light, to be a balance of incompetence and nefarious, oligarchic cronyism gone horribly awry. One of the saddest things about this administration is how fully they occupy the minds of otherwise noble thinkers. A shame, in fact, that one of the lasting impressions of Kurt Vonnegut's final book, effectively a memoir, is one of bitterness and disillusionment brought on by the current state of politics. For a survivor of the Dresden fire bombings, an icon of independent thinking, wit, and a perverse brand of optimism about the human spirit, this is a depressing state of affairs, that Vonnegut, in his golden years, should seemed as preoccupied with the moral and political failings of Bush and Co. as with weaving beautiful. little vignettes about New York City and dispensing enough sound advice to carry any eighteen year old clear through their late-thirties.

What does shine through in A Man Without A Country is the avuncular wisdom and mischievousness that is a hallmark of Vonnegut through the years. Declaring himself a member of the church of perpetual astonishment, and constantly aware, through his dismay, of the wonder and genuine niceness that can be found in everyday living, A Man Without A Country is the sort of book that should be presented to every high school senior to read as he takes a steamship to India for a summer before starting college.

And, at a slim 138 pages, it is perfect pocket reading for morning's subway ride, to revel in Vonnegut whimsically carry ing on about "Evolution can go to hell as far as I am concerned. What a waste we are," and "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is who you've been to college," or "Do you know what a Luddite is? A person who hates newfangled contraptions," and "I have some good news for you and some bad news. The bad news is that the Martians have landed in New York City and are staying at the Waldorf Astoria. The good news is that they only eat homeless men, women, and children of all colors and pee gasoline." A Man Without A Country won't knock you off your feet, but it will bring out that knowing smile.

John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers was both my most and least favorite book of the past month. Uncommon Carriers, a collection of New Yorker essays, bring to vivid life some wonderful corners of the world of transportation, the vast and busy supply lines that make our world what it is. Ranging from riding shotgun in a long-haul trucker, to visiting a school in the French Alps which teaches the captains of supertankers various complicated maneuvers on a to-scale miniature of the world's waterways, to a ride along two mile long coal trains, to a canoe ride tracing the route of Henry David Thoreau, to a survey of the transition of UPS from simple logistics company to total supply chain powerhouse, undergirding, apparently, the entirety of American consumer industry, McPhee provides entree to the mechanics and people who make our world go.

My only quibble, which I persisted in through my entire reading of the book, was McPhee's bad habit of littering his otherwise pristine prose with a mess of jargon and vernacular, effective in adding color and atmosphere to his essays, but at the same time, feeling leaden, contrived, and pretentious. For example, in the second installment of McPhee's essay about long-haul container truck driver Don Ainsworth:
Since that day in Tacoma when I had last seen him, he had driven nearly four hundred thousand miles, in forty-six states and three Canadian provinces. He had carried liquefied clay from Sandersville, Georgia to Thunder Bay, on the Canadian shore of Lake Superior, delivering it in a blizzard. He had carried petroleum-based candle way from Titusville, Pennsylvania to West Jordan, Utah; fatty acid from Winter Haven, Florida to Roanoke, Virginia; cutting oil from Hilton, New York, to Cullman, Alabama; tall oil (pine-tree resin) from Mobile, Alabama to Oklahoma City; "elephant snot," trademarked ClariFloc from Savannah, Georgia, to a wastewater-treatment plant in Fresno, California...
... and so on. While the rhythmic patter provides a fair approximation of Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere," I leave such a paragraph with no less understanding of what it means to be a long haul trucker, and with the impression that, for all of the wonderful detail that McPhee provides throughout the rest of his essays, may be he doesn't, either. But it is a small quibble against style, and one that I am pressing too hard, given that McPhee's essays provide engaging and atmospheric vantages into the familiar but unknown transportation industry.

My favorite essays in Uncommon Carriers were "The Ships of Port Revel," which illustrated a vaguely cartoonish world in which a multi-national collection of ship's captains (and by ships, we're talking supertankers), gather together at a lake in the French Alps and learn the techniques of advanced ship-handling on a course made to miniature: waterways (replicas of the Suez Canal, the channels between Manhattan Island and Staten Island, Cape Hope, and Cape Fear), actual cargo ships, and water currents and prevailing winds all scaled to 1:15,625 size in a strange, high-stakes Disneyland of ship-handling, and "Out in the Sort," in which McPhee explains how UPS is more than just a shipping company. In "Out in the Sort," McPhee shows how UPS, in fact, has built a company which handles such tasks as warehousing "every last component of Bentley motor cars," employs eighty technicians who "will have the innards of your Toshiba laptop spread all over the table. They replace hard drives, main-system boards, liquid crystal displays," as an outsourced arm of Toshiba's customer support. And UPS, through its Metropolitan College, provides both incentives and the infrastructure to help its employees go to college (and to help students with financial needs become UPS employees), to the extent that "more students go to Metropolitan College than to Haverford."

My copy of Uncommon Carriers is badly weathered. Over a week on the beach, crammed into my travel bag, and occasionally left out in wind-swept rain storms, it took a beating. And although I did take issue (to the point of recurrent, irrational arguing with RM) with elements of style, it is probably the book most worth your time of those that I read in April.

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