Thursday, February 17, 2005

First book recommendation of 2005

Book recommendation: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky.

I'm halfway through this book and already I've started recommending it to friends. Twenty-five years ago Lansky set out to save Yiddish books from destruction. This account of his efforts is funny and charming and inspiring. It is a delightful read. More to follow.
* * *
Book 15 of '05: Sophie's Choice by William Styron.
I finished this book a few days ago. I liked it a lot more 30 years ago than I do now. I'll explore why later. But let's just say I am uneasy about the ambivalence of this book toward the horror of the Holocaust.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Little Matty, the Red Fox of Kinderhook

Book 14 of '05: Martin Van Buren, Ted Widmer.

I have slogged my way through many an epic biography. Few men (or women) warrant the excess represented by a biography of several hundred pages. Historians seem drawn to such excess, which generally results in an surfeit of boredom and a shortage of reader interest. Yes, there are exceptions. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ and William Manchester’s multi-volume history of William Churchill all come to mind.

Two recent series have made a virtue of the small book. Widmer’s Martin Van Buren belongs to the American Presidents series by Times Books. The series is uniformly well-written, balanced, insightful and brief. Widmer's Martin Van Buren weighs in at less than 200 pages, including a page of milestones in Van Buren's life, a bibliography and the index. I have especially enjoyed and appreciated the biographies of such little-known presidents as Van Buren, Chester Alan Arthur and Warren G. Harding (written by John Dean).

Another superb “mini” series is the Penguin Lives biographies of famous men and women, ranging from Buddha to Elvis, from Joan of Arc to Crazy Horse.

I offer two quotes from Martin Van Buren:

“Still, there is no evidence that Van Buren ever committed any indiscretions during his long career at the center of Washington society—he managed to combined perfectly the seeming capacity for sin with the refusal to commit it . . .”

In remarking on a vindictive act by political allies against rival De Witt Clinton, Widmer tells us: “Van Buren exploded, ‘There is such a thing in politics as killing a man too dead!’”

* * *

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I traveled to Boston for two days last week. My schedule did not allow time for “booking,” but I did pay an all-to-brief visit to the Brattle Book Shop. Tucked away on a side street in downtown Boston, Brattle is a well-respected purveyor of used, rare and antiquarian books. Its general dishevelment and down-at-the-heels air keep me from placing it on the shortlist of my favorite shops. That aside, it is clearly worthy of a visit during any journey to Boston. It’s evident that treasures rest on its shelves, treasures that appear to be reasonably priced.

Brattle has three floors, the uppermost housing its rare book room. I was most entranced by its open-air shopping. While it is not unusual for a used book shop to place a cart or two outside the entrance, generally in the hope of luring shoppers inside, Brattle's outdoor arrangements emulate what I envision the outdoor book stalls of Europe to be. It features a combination of permanent and temporary shelves and carts situated on a vacant lot next to the store. During my visit, there were far more shoppers outside than in. Although it was an appealing setting, the unseasonably warm, sunshiny day in mid-February was the most likely explanation for the many book lovers choosing to shop alfresco.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller, Howlin' Wolf and Sophie

Good Bye, Arthur Miller. Destined to rank among American’s leading dramatists, may your plays find audiences for decades to come.

* * *

Book 13 of '05: Moanin’ at Midnight, The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf, James Segrest and Mark Hoffman.

I finished this book Tuesday while on a quick trip to Boston (more later). I found it to be a serviceable, but unexceptional biography of an American original. Wolf (born Chester Burnett) and his voice were a force of nature.

This biography, along with recent biographies of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, provide us with a proper appreciation of blues contribution to rock and roll—in America and in England—as well as furnishing us with a reason for Wolf’s preeminent status as a blue artist. This man belongs on Mount Bluesmore.

I take exception with two aspects of the book. The descriptions of key recording sessions are well-researched and largely resolve the identity of musicians in the studio when Wolf’s greatest recordings were made. But, these passages often smack of inside baseball. The authors clearly understand the intricacies of music, but what do descriptions of “belching saxophones, tom-tom drumming, and . . . brilliantly off-kilter guitar” or “a hypnotic one-chord romp” or “loping bass and sizzling drums, and Wolf’s throbbing harp” mean, except the authors have access to a thesaurus?

Segrest and Hoffman also rely heavily on interviews with an assortment of blues musicians and hangers on. The availability of primary source material is an asset for any biographer, but one that must be handled cautiously. Among those interviewed are certain to be musicians speaking from pique, jealously and dislike and who have one eye firmly on their place in the pantheon of blues artist. Which is to say that all interviews do not contribute to our understanding of Howlin’ Wolf.

My quibbles are minor. A biography of Wolf was long overdue and this book is most welcome. The discography provided by the authors is especially instructive and is certain to cost me considerable coin.

* * *

I am currently reading Sophie’s Choice by William Styron as I continue to devote January and February to re-reading works of fiction. I distinctly remember the nub of Sophie’s Choice, but did not recall Styron’s style, which is dense as this passage amply demonstrates:

“Poland is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, soul-split country which in many ways (I came to see through Sophie’s eyes and memory that summer, and through my own eyes in later years) resembles or conjures up images of the American South—or at least the South of other, not-so-distant times. It is not alone that forlornly lovely, nostalgic landscape which creates the frequent likeness—the quagmiry but haunting monochrome of the Narew River swampland, for example, with its look and feel of a murky savanna on the Carolina coast, or the Sunday hush on a muddy back street in a village of Galicia, where by only the smallest eyewink of the imagination one might see whisked to a lonesome crossroads hamlet in Arkansas these ramshackle, weather-bleached little houses, crookedly carpentered, set upon shrubless plots of clay where scrawny chickens fuss and peck—but in the spirit of the nation, her indwellingly ravaged and melancholy heart, tormented into its shape like that of the Old South out of adversity, penury and defeat.”

Whew. I like fewer words, more periods and a more direct line to the story. More to come.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Book 12 of '05: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was John le Carré’s third novel and his most important. It’s popularity with critics and the reading public established him as the master of the espionage genre. A position he held for more than three decades.

Three ingredients contributed to le Carré’s long-term success. His novels were well written with splendid pacing and memorable characters. For the first time, we could sneak a peek behind the curtain of clandestine operations as le Carré introduced us to the tradecraft of espionage and took us inside the minds of spies and their handlers.

Finally, le Carré’s novels were more than mere thrillers. He brought a political conscience to his work that was rare for this genre. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold characters instruct us as to the importance of the state over the individual in Communist philosophy. Yet, in the end, it is the Democratic state that betrays and sacrifices the individual to advance its interests.

This balance, which bordered on detachment, gave le Carré’s novels an extraordinarily fine tension. Not the tension that emerges from mere suspense, but the tension that springs from the balancing of titanic forces, from the latent hostility between opposing governments or philosophies. Tension that, without remorse or hesitation, threatens to tear apart the lives of individuals caught in its web.

This was the strength and the appeal of writer John le Carré.


If you admire le Carré, you are almost to certain to appreciate the novels of Alan Furst. He is the best writer in the genre today.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Elmore Leonard The Avatar of Cool

Book 11 of ’05: Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard.

Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Elmore Leonard. Eminently readable, Leonard is a master of the craft of writing.

Leonard’s characters are defined by their actions and their tastes in clothes, movies and music. Action not exposition drives his narrative, which is never slowed down by lush descriptions of sunsets. Leonard’s most elaborate descriptions are reserved for someone’s clothing—from the top: a tab collar or a dress shirt buttoned with no tie; to bottom: pale socks set against dark dress shoes.

There is a cinematic quality to Leonard’s writing, which explains why so many of his novels have been translated into film. In some writers (I’m thinking Michael Crichton), this method fails spectacularly; you have the inescapable feeling the author has gotten lazy and is combining the film script with the novel. Not Leonard, his pared down, rock-and-roll paced, cinematic style keeps us reading.

Each of Leonard’s novels—whatever the ultimate subject—is about “cool”; who’s cool, who isn’t, who wants to be and who never will be. Chili Palmer is cool. Leo the drycleaner never will be. Ray Bones thinks he’s cool, but Chili knows better and so do we.


Get Shorty is a masterful send-up of Hollywood and the way movies get, or don’t get, made. It’s appropriate, then, that the film version with John Travolta, Danny De Vito, Rene Russo and Gene Hackman is a delightfully entertaining film. Read the book and then watch the movie—that’s not a recommendation you will often receive.

While on the subject of books into movies, director Martin Scorsese’s film version of Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, also comes highly recommended. It stars the always watchable Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and, in a piece of inspired casting, Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Room to Read: The Gift of Literarcy

Here's an Internet site worthy of your consideration:

Room to Read's stated goal is to intervene early in the lives of children and help provide them with an education and the lifelong gift of literacy. They have developed a three-pronged approach to the problem of rural education:

Monday, January 31, 2005

Shelf Life, Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore

Book 10 of ’05: Shelf Life by Suzanne Strempek Shea.

I once worked in a bookstore. It was the first Barnes & Noble in our part of Kansas. I was hired early and helped set up the store. I was working fulltime as administrative assistant to the Governor at the time and parttime, mostly weekends, in the bookstore. Another bookseller was the chief legal counsel for the board of regents. We just wanted to be around books. Plus, take advantage of the discount – 30 percent throughout the year, 40 percent on two days during the year, once at Christmas and once during the summer.

A lot of people were tapped to run the cash register. I rarely did. They liked me on the floor. I was good at shelving; faster than most. I was good at finding books for customers, at figuring out what people wanted, and at selling books, too. It was great fun and hard work. At the end of eight hours my legs ached. The floor is just a thin carpet over concrete. But I was never bored. The money wasn’t bad, a little above minimum wage. Generally, I turned it back over to Barnes & Noble in the form of book purchases.

Suzanne Strempek Shea captures some of my experiences. Her book is an account of a year at a small, but aggressive independent bookstore. I worked for a large chain. She was encouraged to be creative. We followed the dictates of corporate.

Her experiences with customers reflect my own. There are the customers who don’t remember the title or the name of the author, but know it was a red cover, sitting on that table or this shelf. Or the schoolchildren who had to have a certain book tonight because the report was due tomorrow.

Shelf Life was mildly entertaining, but it’s not a book I’d recommend. The interesting passages never rose to the level of fascinating and there were sections that fell absolutely flat.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Edith Wharton and The Age of Innocence

Book Nine of ’05: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton.

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a nearly perfect novel. It is two stories—a tale of requited, but unconsummated love and a penetrating exploration of the customs of Old New York.

It is the account of Old New York that is most important. For the love story, ineffable and bittersweet, takes its shape and meaning from the structure of society. Society brings the couple—Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska—together, yet also serves to keep them eternally apart.

Wharton’s writing is elegant and precise. Late in the novel, after Archer and his wife, May, have talked elliptically about Madame Olenska, May leaves the room “her torn and muddy wedding-dress dragging after her across the room.” That single image aptly and startlingly captures the state of the couple’s marriage.

Wharton exposes the nuances of New York society; its customers and forms, its dance of manners, which she describes as “habit, and honour, and all the old decencies.” Wharton writes of tribal code with knowing eyes and ears. She sets society in sharp relief as an archeologist exposes the quotidian details of a past civilization.

Two fine passages:

“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each others, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”

She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations . . . and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”


“Now he saw the matter in a new light, and his part in it seemed singularly diminished. It was, in fact . . . a smiling, bantering, humouring, watchful and incessant lie. A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie in every touch and every look; a lie in every caress and every quarrel; a lie in every word and in every silence.

It was easier, and less dastardly on the whole, for a wife to play such a part toward her husband. A woman’s standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved. Then she could always plead moods and nerves, and the right not to be held too strictly to account; and even in the most strait-laced societies the laugh was always against the husband.”

Saturday, January 29, 2005

First Book Sales of the Season

After an interlude of many months, 2005 brought two books sales in quick order. I looked forward to each with great anticipation. The promise of a discovery, large or small, at bargain prices is too great to resist.

I bought a dozen books. Here’s what I found:

  • Two Modern Library editions. I don’t think of myself as collecting Modern Library editions, but I do pick them up from time to time. I bought 7 Famous Greek Plays and The Greek Commonwealth, which was an ML first.

  • Lincoln and Whitman by Daniel Mark Epstein.

  • The Wright Brothers by Quentin Reynolds. A children’s book with dust jacket intact.

  • Brotherly Love by Pete Dexter. I have slowly assembled most of Dexter’s books. He is among my favorite writers. I remember at a signing last year that Elmore Leonard mentioned Dexter as one of the writers he most enjoyed reading.

  • Gifts by Ursula Le Guin.

  • Marlfox by Brian Jacques. This will be sold. There is already a copy on my shelves. My youngest son read most of the Redwall series and we have assembled a nice collection of American and British firsts.

  • Donald Honig’s The Last Great Season.

  • Museums & Women and Other Stories by John Updike. Used firsts of Updike are abundant at book sales.

  • A German edition of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. It has the words "Erste Auflage" on the copyright page. I wasn’t certain what those words meant, but took the chance that they might mean first edition. That is indeed the translation. A very cool copy of Hornby’s novel with attractive pictorial boards.

  • Loon Lake by E. L. Doctorow.

  • A signed copy of Robert Crais’ Sunset Express.

Except for the ML editions, everything is a first edition. I shop at book sales to supplement my collection, not for reading material. If I were shopping for reading material, I would be spending four or five times more and bringing home sacks of books.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Completed Eighth Book of 2005

Book eight of '05: Collapse, Jared Diamond.

An important book. (See my previous entry). On a par with
Silent Spring. We've been warned. Now how does the world respond? How does each of us, as individuals, respond?

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Comic Characters of Author Anne Tyler

Book 7 of ’05: Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler.

I’ve been reading Anne Tyler’s novels for the past three decades. I stumbled onto her books as I made the transition from comic books and sci-fi to “serious” fiction. A treasure of modern American literature, Tyler has assembled an impressive and much-loved body of work.

I can’t think of the people in Tyler’s novels as characters. They seems more real, more genuine, than most fictional characters. Strangely enough, that’s because the people in her books, the families that inhabit the pages of her novels, are so odd, so out of step with the mainstream. Yet despite their quirkiness, Tyler's characters are endearing. We quickly develop an affection for them.

It is just as we take her characters to heart that Tyler introduces a heart-wrenching twist into the narrative. A husband cheats on his wife of many years. A child dies. A young woman finds herself impregnated by someone other than her husband. Then comes the resolution. It’s never thoroughly satisfying—not from the way it is written, mind you—but because the resolution is lumpy, crooked, uneven. It may be disturbing, not what we expected at all from these people at all. But there is comfort, too.

Tyler uses humor to underscore and emphasize the tragic. Her comic characters—who are never so broadly drawn as to be preposterous—punctuate the misfortunes and misjudgments that befall us all in life. And in that way, she binds us all together. Here, Tyler says, is life. It can be funny and foolish and a little screwball, but it is also piercingly sweet and delectably heart wrenching. Her characters, her novels, are funny the way life is funny—you laugh to keep from crying.

Three favorite passages:

"Morgan’s oldest daughter was getting married. It seemed he had to find this out by degrees; nobody actually told him. All he knew was that over a period of months one young man began visiting more and more often, till soon a place was set for him automatically at suppertime and he was consulted along with the rest of the family when Bonny wanted to know what color to paint the dining room. His name was Jim. He had the flat, beige face of a department-store mannequin, and he seemed overly fond of crew-necked sweaters.” (p. 97)

“The trouble with fathering children was, they got to know you so well. You couldn’t make the faintest little realignment of the facts around them. They kept staring levelly into your eyes, eternally watchful and critical, forever prepared to pass judgment. They could point to so many places where you had gone permanently, irretrievably wrong.” (p. 106)

“I used to think it was enough that I was loving; yes, I used to think at least I am a sweet and loving man, but now I see that it matters also who you love, and what your reasons are.” (p. 310)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Animals worship pagan god in Grahame's Willows

Saturday was an ideal day to read. The snow began at mid-morning and continued throughout the day. With no desire to venture out, and absent a reason to do so, I completed my sixth book of ’05, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I enjoy Ernest Shepard’s illustrations more than I do the text.

Perhaps I’d find the Willows more endearing if I had read it as a child. I didn’t. I first read the book during the summer before my senior year in high school. On re-reading I discover two odd passages that detract from the overall work. The oddest passage is found in Chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” It sounds like a short story by Robert E. Howard. Mole and Rat are in search of Otter’s missing child. They find the child asleep at the feet of Pan, a pagan god of the woods.

Pan isn’t named, but he is well-described; his curved horns, hooked nose, his pan-pipes and hooves. His presence, his music, have a narcotic effect upon Mole and Rat who “crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.” Am I alone in finding this odd? It’s not that I expect Grahame’s forest animals to be Christians or Muslims or Jews, but the introduction of a pagan god into a children’s tale written in early 20th Century England seems strange.

The other odd passage is found in Chapter 9, "Wayfarers All", in which Rat meets a sea-faring Rat, who describes the pleasures of the wandering life and invites Rat to join him on his journey south. Rat succumbs to the spell, but his wanderlust is broken by the steadfast Mole who drags him into his hole, throws him down and holds him captive until the fit passes.

In and of itself, the Sea Rat is not an unusual character, but the extended descriptions of the Grecian Islands, Venice and Corsica seem out of place within the narrow boundaries of the world inhabited by Grahame’s woodland creatures.

Finally, I object to the way the animals and humans casually intermingle. I don’t mind tales of talking animals who dress like humans and drive motor cars. Such books depend on an internal logic to which the author must be true. If, as in Grahame’s case, the internal logic isn’t rigorously observed, the work does not hold together. We see the man behind the curtain.

Humans keep cats and dogs as pets, but interact with Toad as if he were an equal. He escapes prison disguised as a washerwoman. I love Shepard’s illustration, but how tall is Toad? I don’t think it takes an especially bright child to wonder about this scene.

Later, Toad accepts a bowl of stew from a gypsy. The stew is made with partridges and pheasants, chickens and hares, rabbits and peahens. It seems cannibalistic of Toad to so heartily enjoy this repast.

I make too much of nothing, perhaps. Such are the dangers of the study of English literature (and of re-reading a book after so many years). My favorite passages in the Willows are the domestic scenes: The lengthy description of Badger’s home after Mole and Rat seek refuge there from the snowstorm and the dangerous denizens of the Wild Wood, and the passage when Mole returns to his own home after a lengthy absence.


I am more than 200 pages into Jared Diamond’s Collapse. It is an interesting and worthwhile book, but reads too much like a textbook. Diamond’s lectures are far more approachable and entertaining than his written work.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

On Returning to a Long-Loved Book

Book 5 of 2005 is Willa Cather’s classic My Ántonia. This may be the book I have read more than any other. I first read it for pleasure in my 30s. Later, I read and re-read it in my study of English literature. In the past few days, I returned to it after an absence of years. Like the book’s narrator Jim Burden, who renews his friendship with Ántonia after more than 20 years, I find the reunion sweet.

I have read most of Cather’s books. This, I believe, is her best book, her most heartfelt. Ántonia Shimerda, the Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska, who advances from childhood to middle age in the course of the book, is an archetype for the women who settled the vast American plains. Cather fervently believes that it was women who played a vital role in taming the prairie; at once a source of strength and nurture.

As Burden observes, Ántonia is “a rich mine of life.” I wrote this of Ántonia in 1987: “Her family and farm, her orchard, the crops bursting from a prairie she helped tame, are all evidence of her life-giving powers.” During his long-delayed visit to Ántonia, Jim Burden finds her aged but “in the full vigour of her personality, battered but not diminished.”

As a child of the plains, I find that My Ántonia resonates with me in a way few books do. I am impatient with most descriptions of landscapes, but I see Cather’s descriptions in my mind’s eye. Her sense of place is palpable. I have walked those prairies, and I know the small town life she captures so vividly.

# # #

What a pleasure to return to a book, long-loved, but unopened after many years. Characters, scenes and settings come tumbling from the pages and from my memory. It is like re-visiting a loved, but long-neglected aunt. The experience is bittersweet, both powerful and disturbing. I wonder, “Why has it been so long?”

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Nixon and Ambrose

I finished reading my 4th book of 2005 late this afternoon: Nixon The Education of a Politician 1913-1962 by Stephen Ambrose. It is the first work of non-fiction I have read in the new year.

I've read many of Ambrose's books and I liked them. As with his other books, this biography, which takes us through Nixon's unsuccessful run for California governor in 1962, is exceptionally well done. Ambrose treats Nixon fairly, and gives a highly readable account of such notable events as the Alger Hiss hearings and Nixon's famous Checkers speech.

I am saddened that Ambrose's career ended on an unfortunate note. At worst, he was guilty of plagiarism; at best, "borrowing" material from other historians and failing to give proper credit or provide proper attribution. I believe Ambrose was a victim of his own success. Many of his books such as Undaunted Courage and Nothing Like It In The World were both critical and popular successes.

History or biography that is both well-researched and well-written takes time. Yet it seemed in the final years of his life that Ambrose was cranking out a book at the rate of one a year. I'm sure his publishers encouraged his productivity. The reading public rewarded it as well; sales were enthusiastic. Perhaps it is best if a historian enjoys a modest, but appreciative audience, rather than fall prey to the allure of the best seller list.

As for Nixon, I was first eligible to vote in 1972. I voted for George McGovern. I believed in McGovern's campaign, once traveling to South Dakota to meet him at a rally of young Democrats. I was also, unabashedly, a Nixon-hater.

Ambrose tells us that Nixon was first called "Tricky Dick" by Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent in the 1950 California U.S. Senate race. Nixon, who had been a California congressman, won and later vaulted into national prominence as a member of HUAC–the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

Ambrose has this to say of Nixon: "He polarized the public more than any other man of his era. It is remarkable but probably true that in 1960, when he was only forty-seven years old, he was the most hated and fear man in America--and next to Eisenhower himself, the most admired and wanted." (p 613)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Book Three. So It Goes.

I finished reading my third book of 2005 this afternoon. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Billy Pilgrim. Kilgore Trout. The firebombing of Dresden. I remember the movie with Valerie Perrine. So it goes.

Jared Diamond and the Collapse of Society

By his own account, Jared Diamond is a “cautious optimist” when it comes to the major problems confronting American society in the decades ahead. Those problems can be solved, he said. “The problems are not hopeless. They are all of our making.”

A scholar and Pulitzer-prize winning author, Diamond was in Washington, D.C. this past week to promote his new book, Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He is the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, which won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and which enjoyed both critical and popular success.

Diamond began Collapse as an attempt to answer the romantic, archaeological mysteries of the collapse of ancient societies—the Greenland Norse, the Mayans, the Anasazi Indians. The scope of the book expanded as he realized that all past societies were not doomed to collapse.

As his research unfolded, Diamond found himself confronted with an intellectual puzzler: Why do some societies fail, while others succeed? In attempting to answer that question, Diamond came to the realization that existing societies are confronting their own success or failure.

From his studies, Diamond emerged with three deep lessons for the modern world:

  • Take environmental and population problems seriously.
  • A society will fail if its political elite is insulated from the consequences of its political actions.
  • A societiy will fail if it clings to core values, which were once a source of strength, long after those core values no longer serve society.

Two of those three lessons are especially pertinent to the United States today. Diamond said, America must be especially cautious of its isolationism and of its sense of unlimited resources, of endless plenty.

Diamond said that no one factor serves as an explanation for the success or failure of a society. In Collapse he develops a five-point framework or checklist:

  1. Human environmental impacts. Some societies, such as Easter Island, commit ecological suicide by destroying its natural resources. Others, such as Japan, avert disaster through enlightened policies and practices.

  2. Climate change. The climate becomes hotter or colder, drier or wetter. Climate change interacts with human environmental impacts.

  3. Enemies. Enemies may take advantage of a weakened society. Diamond said it is still unresolved whether the Barbarians were the fundamental cause of a Rome’s downfall or if the Barbarians were merely the last straw, toppling a nation already weakened from within.

  4. Friends. A society may be undone by the collapse of its trading partners. As example, Diamond cited the impact of the 1973 Gulf Oil Crisis on America.

  5. How a society responds to points 1 through 4.

Why do societies make fatal mistakes? The answer, Diamond said, is complex. Societies may fail to anticipate a problem. They may fail to perceive a problem. They may not try to solve the problem or they may try to solve it and fail.

Factors such as “landscape amnesia” and “creeping normalcy” contribute to a society’s downfall. A society simply may not “see” slow changes such as global warning or the devastation of plant life.

In researching his book, Diamond said one of his biggest surprises was the realization that big business, which he once viewed as universally evil, can make responsible contributions to society. The public influences business decisions through legislation and through their pocketbooks, according to Diamond.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Edith Grossman and the Translator's Art

Edith Grossman, notable for her translation of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, made an appearance in Washington, D.C. last night. Her appearance was part of a year-long celebration of the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, which is considered the first modern novel. Grossman's recent translation of Don Quixote was published last year.

Grossman said she did not set out to be a translator. In college, her goal was to be a literary critic and scholar. She found herself moonlighting as a translator of Spanish poetry and fiction after a friend asked her to translate a story for publication.

“I agreed out of curiosity,” Grossman said. She found she enjoyed the process, which she described as intriguing, mysterious and endlessly challenging. “It is a strange craft,” she said.

Translators are largely ignored by reviewers and under-appreciated by publishers, Grossman said, while authors tend to value the work of talented translators.

Grossman believes that translators must be faithful to the author and his text, but that faithfulness, she said, has “little to do with literal meaning.” Translators, she said, should not be faithful to lexical pairings, to words and syntax, but to context.

Her belief grows out of the observation that “a living language will not be regulated.” Even a simple language is slippery, paradoxical, ambivalent and explosive, she said.

“I believe the meaning of a passage can almost always be rendered faithfully in a second language,” Grossman said. “The actual words almost never.”

Grossman posed the question: Is a translation an imitation or an original? And then furnished the answer: A translated work, she said, has an existence separate from the first text.


I completed my second book of 2005 late last night— The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr. It’s a book I first read several years ago. I thought it was terrific then and, if anything, think more highly of it now.


The mail yesterday brought me a first edition of Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. I didn’t read much science fiction last year, with the exception of Stross’ Iron Sunrise. It’s a space opera, but Stross revives the genre. He’s comparable to William Gibson, although Gibson wrote about cyberspace, not the space between the planets. Similarities emerge in their inventiveness, especially with language; their personal vision of how future technology may transform our lives; the development of strong female characters; and the superb command of narrative to drive their work.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

On the death of a character and the Dun Cow

When we mourn the death of a fictional character, when the death comes with a jolt like the news of the unexpected death of a friend, is that the power of the writer? Or the reader? Or both?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s enough that it happens. Those of us who are inveterate readers know the experience well. It doesn’t happen with every novel or every character. Some deaths we see coming, the writer is clumsy and has telegraphed his intent. Or the character is sketchy and incomplete and we mark his death as casually, and with as little interest, as we consider a crumpled tissue plucked from a coat pocket and tossed into the waste bin.

But some characters immediately set up lodging in our hearts. The author has done his work and we identify with such characters. Perhaps we see ourselves in them or someone we know. Perhaps we simply recognize someone we’d like to spend time with.

This morning, I mourn of the deaths of Beryl and the three “pins.” I am past the midway mark of Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow and evil has come to The Coop.

It has been years since I first read this book. I had almost forgotten how much I liked and admired it. First, there is Wangerin’s style, his authorial voice. I find his style readable, inviting. All of Wangerin’s books have this simple, but elusive characteristic—they are fun to read.

Second and third is the success of this book of multiple levels. An allegorical work must succeed at its most basic level. The story must work as a story. And The Book of the Dun Cow succeeds marvelously as simple tale of fantasy. It can be enjoyed merely, and only, as a story of talking animals struggling against the encroach of evil in their world. The book also succeeds as a Christian allegory. There is much to ponder here on successive readings.

Finally, there are the characters: proud Chauntecleer the rooster, the Beautiful Pertelote, John Wesley Weasel, the evil Cockatrice and my favorite, Mundo Cani Dog. They are vivid, memorable, endearing; as is this book.

Three favorite lines from early in this work . . .

Chauntecleer can fly, Wangerin tells us, but seldom chooses to do so. “It was his custom to strut. Strutting permitted pride and a certain show of authority, whereas flying looked foolish in a Rooster . . . Wings on a Rooster, so Chauntecleer thought, were not for flying. They were for doing absolutely nothing with; for it is a mark of superiority when part of the body does nothing at all.” (p. 7)

“For ‘Done,’ when it is well done, is a very good word.” (p 13)

“Lordship is always easier in the ordering than in the listening.” (p. 16)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Thoughts on the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote

Cervantes, like his contemporary William Shakespeare, successfully wrote for a mass audience. It is this ability—to merge the highbrow with the lowbrow—that, I think, explains much of the enduring success of Don Quixote.

Cervantes reached the masses through his humor. Above all, Don Quixote is a comic novel. The comedy ranges from the sly and sophisticated to raucous and vulgar.

One example serves: Early, on their second sally, Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, are halted by the frightening “sound of rhythmic pounding, along with a certain clanking of irons and chains.” It is night, so they elect to remain where they are, and wait for the dawn to investigate this terrifying sound.

Unfortunately, “Sancho had eaten something laxative for supper, or because it was the natural order of things . . . he felt the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him . . . “ Sancho surreptitiously loosens the slip knot holding up his breeches, lifts his shirt “and stuck out both buttocks, which were not very small.” He proceeds to rid himself of his burden.

Soon, the vapors rise up, reaching Don Quixote’s nostrils. “And as soon as they did he came to the assistance of his nostrils, squeezed them closed between two fingers, and in a somewhat nasal voice, he said: ‘It seems to me, Sancho, that you are very frightened.’”

All the elements of Cervantes’ comedic success are present this passage. (It is found on pages 147-148 of the hardback version of Grossman’s translation.) The writing is eminently readable, yet complex in its execution. There are elements of quiet humor—the phrase ‘to do what no one else could do for him,” Don Quixote squeezing his nostrils and speaking in a nasal tone—and the vulgar—his squire loosening his breeches, extending his buttocks and relieving himself.

I didn’t expect to find passages in Cervantes appropriate to a Farrelly Brothers’ film.

Finally, I am trying, with difficulty, to identify a recent author who successfully merges the highbrow and lowbrow. Richard Brautigan, John Irving and Tom Wolfe are authors who seems to come the closest.

A few other quick thoughts . . .

Don Quixote, the character, is little more than a cardboard cut-out. He is a wise man made a tragic by his belief in the existence of knights errant, but Cervantes does not take us beyond this superficial exterior. Sancho Panza is more fully formed, more fleshed out (only a small pun intended). His gluttony, his penchant for spouting proverbs and his self-interest are among the traits that make him a lovable and singular figure. Someone we feel we know.

Nowhere does Sancho Panza’s distinctiveness emerge more than in his stubborn refusal to self-administer painful lashes in order to free the beauteous Dulcinea of Toboso from her enchantment. When he finally accedes to his master’s request, Sancho demands privacy and immediately begins to lash the nearby trees and bushes rather than his ample backside.

Until re-reading Don Quixote, I had never realized how much Charles Dickens owes to Cervantes. The Pickwick Papers, which is also a picaresque novel, draws its inspiration directly from Don Quixote. And Sam Weller is clearly an updated, British version of Sancho Panza. I had planned to read something by Dickens in the first two months of 2005. Cervantes has pointed me to The Pickwick Papers.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

First Book of 2005 Completed

I have finished my first book of 2005. I started Don Quixote by Cervantes on January 1st. I completed it today. 940 pages. This was the translation by Edith Grossman. I will have more to say on this book in the coming week. For now, I am celebrating the University of Kansas' victory over the University of Kentucky.

Next up: The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin. A book that I consider, with the exception of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, to be the great work of fantasy in the past half century.

Hotel Rwanda and Philip Gourevitch

The horror of the Rwandan genocide is set against one man's courage in the film, Hotel Rwanda. Don Cheadle gives the finest performance of his career as Paul Rusesabagi, the hotel manager who shelters and ultimately saves more than a thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus from the violence that descended on the African nation in 1994. Hotel Rwanda, which is a true story, provides only a snap-shot of the cruelty and violence, which resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans.

To complement a viewing of this film, I recommend reading Philip Gourevitch's 1998 account, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. Gourevitch won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. It is a balanced and insightful--and haunting--account of the genocide.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Goodbye 2004, Hello 2005

Final total of books read in 2004: 142, two short of a gross. Reading list for the year is available by e-mailing me at

Dedicating the first part of the year to re-reading a select list of classics. Three-fourths of the way through Don Quixote as edited by Edith Grossman. Also reading Stephen Ambrose's early history of Nixon. (The re-reading applies only to fiction.)

Don Quixote is funnier and more insightful than I expected. I last read Cervantes as a high school freshman and that was probably an abridged version. Grossman has done a superb job of translation. This is an eminently readable work.