Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wait is Longer for a Post-Statistics World

29. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

First, to boost the scores on my quotas, I am counting this as a 2009 book. No, hear me out. The edition I read had a very long forward written in 2009 that significantly affected the views and relevance of the book. In the wake of the recession, Zakaria has an even stronger argument for the "rise of the rest" and the problems with American overconsumption. Besides, the hardback first edition came out for the first time in late 2008 anyway. So there.

I am attracted to Zakaria's idea of a world working toward economic globalization and more questioning and competition in global politics. I certainly think it's an accurate observation that this is the direction of the future. Actually, I would think it naive for anyone to believe otherwise. But how does Zakaria back this up? With lots and lots of statistics. Now, obviously he needs hard facts to support him, but not only was most of the information probably obsolete when it was published (as Zakaria admits), but I think he could have done a better job of picking and choosing the most relevant ones and building stronger arguments around those. I don't need to know how much the construction of every Chinese city cost. I appreciate his debunking of stats on Chinese and Indian engineering grads (stats include technical schools and students trained as plumbers and mechanics), as it shows how tempered he means his argument to be.

Zakaria is not saying that China will take over the world tomorrow, he's just saying we should form closer ties with the Chinese now, because they are already cultivating local influence and hold most of the world's (i.e. the U.S.'s) economic assets. But most of China is still underdeveloped, underpaid, and experiencing low quality of life.

I was very interested in what he had to say about India. Zakaria makes a few references to his own upbringing there. The world's largest democracy is leaning ever closer to the United States and the West in culture and economic practice. Yet again, he spouted too many statistics. I want personal interviews with Indians; how do they feel? where do they see their country among the powers of the world?

In addition to chapters on China ("The Challenger") and India ("The Ally"), Zakaria discusses the rise of American power (and the analogous rise to British power centuries before and subsequent fall) and American attitudes and behaviors politically, economically, and, to a lesser degree, socially. He has harsh criticism for American politics and the detriments of partisanship. I tend to think both the Republican and Democratic parties have outlived their usefulness, except for the relative stability of their infrastructure.

In the last chapter, Zakaria gets around to the most valuable part of the book. He gives a set of guidelines for how America can improve its image and political efficiency. If Washington is taking notes, I think we'd certainly be better off. Of course, no pundit or journalist should get carte blanche, but we need smart minds working together to create a system that works, not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world too.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Redeeming Cain

28. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This American fable based on the story of Cain and Abel has often been touted as one of the best, if not the best, Steinbeck novel. I would have to concur. Steinbeck uses the Salinas Valley in California as a symbolic backdrop to the story. In the opening scene, he introduces two sets of mountains, the western range kind and inviting, the eastern range cold and forbidding.

Steinbeck encouraged me to look at Cain and Abel in a different way. As he and his characters note, it is one of the most difficult to comprehend stories in the Bible, probably along with the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. It goes against our notion of what we want God to be. Why did God reject Cain's offering? Although we must condemn Cain for his own action, since he has free will, the Ultimate Father figure seems to have unnecessarily provoked murder by showing favoritism. Then again, the Torah is all about the favoritism of the chosen people. So perhaps the story is not so surprising after all. I digress.

The book is a weaving together and development of characters, who then interact as they must. Most of the characters belong to two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. Cal and Aron are the sons of Adam Trask, but before that Adam and Charles are the sons of Cyrus Trask. Both sets of brothers are Cain and Abel types, but the novel and plot comes to focus on Cal and Aron.

I liked all of the characters more than I thought I would when they were introduced. The Hamiltons, especially the father Sam, are more interesting, and offset the initial bleakness of Adam and his sons. My favorite character though is Adam's Chinese cook Lee, through whom can be learned the practices of, and prejudices against, Chinese at that place and time. Lee, though, is interesting as a scholar and as a man who is lonely and finds his solace in other people's children.

What of the mother of Cal and Aron? Cathy is introduced as a monster, a natural devil. Yet, even in her evil ways, there is something frighteningly human about her. The fear in her personality reminded me of The Enemy Within from the original Star Trek series. The one weakness of evil is fear.

Now from the feminist point of view, why present the mother as the devil? Are we really still ripping on Eve in the twentieth century? (Yes, but..) I feel like the evil character could just as easily have been the father. Yes, Cathy uses femininity (whoring) to accomplish evil, but I'm sure he could've shown men's violence, and men's sexual violence, easily. It must be partly symbolic of Eve, but another female character, Abra, redeems this conundrum. Abra is the female equivalent of Cal, a fair mixture of good and evil. Because Aron is so good, he is no more fully human than Cathy. Especially when he is crying and upset, Aron fights back. He is not afraid.

There is much more to the story than an adaptation of a few verses from Genesis. There are the inventions of the Hamiltons, and plenty of philosophy, wars, and business dealings. But Steinbeck cleverly acknowledges the conflict between good and evil, within and without, that really, all lives and all stories concern.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

27. Valencia by Michelle Tea

I am perhaps not the kind of girl that one would expect to be reading a Lambda Award winner for Best Lesbian Fiction. Not because I have anything against lesbians, but I am generally averse to stream-of-consciousness, whiney memoirs, and overkill sex scenes. At risk of gushing, I will say I found Valencia beautiful in language and spirit. Even though it fit all the aspects of a book I would most expect to find contemptible.

The opening seemed to prove my hypothesis, that it would be pretentious and vulgar. Tea describes how "little tsunamis of beer" cascade down her T-shirt one night, as she tries to impress a girl she is crushing on. Typical fucked-up girl memoir, trying to use pretty language to seem meaningful, I thought. Backtracking to why I was reading it in the first place...I saw it in the library and remembered an old friend had raved and raved about it. Figured it was different from my usual stuff and gave it a shot.

You can look at Valencia the way I wanted to when I started reading. There isn't much more to it than San Francisco, dyke life, and drugs. But whether I was in the right mood or what, it seemed insightful and true to me as I read.

Tea describes her drunken, stoned, and sober adventures and her experiences with the girls she chases after. She has long-term and short-term relationships with women over the course of the novel, as well as tumultuous relationships with friends and acquaintances. Tea is an assertive, sometime aggressive, character who pursues life vigorously and impulsively. Through her words, you can get in the head of the loudmouth at the party, who is also the clingy girlfriend, also your angry, volatile, emotional, but lovable best friend.

Perhaps that's what sets her memoir apart. I'm a quiet girl, in awe of girls like her. I feel like many writers are. When she combines her view with her talent for wordsmithing, the result is entrancing. Tea uses the best points of stream of consciousness, a flowing rhythm that expresses thought and feeling, without the frustrating constructions of Joyce, or annoying lack of punctuation or organization like Eggers.

Valencia is for those who can take hard-core lesbian sex scenes and drug abuse scenes, both of which are fairly consistent throughout the book. It's maybe one for aspiring writers too, and maybe later for historians or LGBT theorists and whatnot. I'd recommend it to friends, both male and female too.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Tramping Twain

26. A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

I really read this because a) it's Mark Twain, but b) the book I found in my school's library is the ORIGINAL EDITION with what looks like an inscription by the man himself, but must be printed, I guess. I want to steal it, even though it is kind of falling apart. I'm really surprised it's available for loan, I feel like it must be valuable. Though there is a hell of a lot of Mark Twain's oeuvre flying about the antique books world.

I even took it to Revere Beach this weekend, where I decided a nice read on my towel would be preferable to the water. The waves looked good, but I was chilly from my vantage point.

This is Twain's rant on his "pedestrian" tour of Europe. He is all about the personal touch, it's more a catalog of his experiences than a guidebook, but it's somehow still not incredibly insightful into him as a person. Which I am okay with. Twain uses his dry humor, usually effectively, to talk about the people he meets and travels with.

I learned a lot about a very few aspects of European culture at the time. He spends a few chapters on his observations of student duellists in Germany, the ceremony of a French duel, and a memorable chapter on his insomnia. He seized within me a desire to see the Lion of Lucerne, and provided me with a list of castles to check out in Germany and Switzerland. However, I feel that I must take everything he says with a grain of salt.

He purports to give his readers many examples of local folk tales and songs, many of which I suspect he invented. So, of the sights he saw, I am skeptical of what is real or not. I suppose it's worth looking up.

Any bona fide Mark Twain fan will gobble this up, and perhaps elder travelers will appreciate a chance to laugh at themselves. Still, this isn't for everyone, it's a little too dry in places and has no plot to keep it going.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Building a Plot within a Plot within a Plot

25. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

"The small boys came early to the hanging" is the captivating first line. Even though I decided I didn't like this book a few chapters in, I kept reading for nine hundred some pages. Follett is a "hook" writer, he draws you in with a provocative statement, shakes up the plot, and moves on to a different character to shake up the plot again. As far as scope and cast go, it greatly reminded me of a Michener novel, but without Michener's talent for intimate description.

I disliked most of the characters for large parts of the book. I've said before, the characters are always most important to me in the novel. If I can't find a character to love, the book won't be a favorite. What The Pillars of the Earth has going for it most are the time period and setting. Follett chose an interesting and unusual time to write about, 1135-1174. The Middle Ages in England, after William the Conqueror and before Richard the Lion Heart. Obviously, I have some familiarity with the time line, but not much, and only the sketchiest idea of how people lived back then. I felt Follett could have demonstrated more research into the time period, and I wasn't quite satisfied with his portrayal of society, but some of it did ring true. Back to the characters, I did feel that they responded to the brutal politics and social structures of their time. That was probably why they were so despicable!

The main characters include Prior Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, who wants to build a cathedral; Tom Builder, who dreams of building a cathedral; Tom Builder's children Alfred, Martha, and Jonathan; Tom Builder's second wife Ellen and stepson Jack; Aliena, disinherited daughter of the Earl of Shiring and her brother Richard; and William Hamleigh, the usurper Earl of Shiring and notorious villain.

There are others, but these are the characters from whose viewpoint the story (or, stories) take place. There is an overarching plot, the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral, but many side stories and plot twists that are necessary to keep the reader's interest. Probably the most interesting, and repellant, parts are when Follett writes from the point of view of William Hamleigh, a cruel, sadistic man. I think he succeeds mostly in his portrayal of that character. That said, I think the characters are largely one-dimensional. Everyone has one driving force or interest, except Aliena, who has a few over the course of the novel. Aliena and Jack, a weird boy who grows into a passionate man, were probably my favorites. Prior Philip is the Good character, but he is too manipulative for my taste.

This book would probably be interesting to people who don't read much, it is attention-holding, and especially for mathematical or architectural buffs, there is a lot of architecture stuff and math discussed that I probably didn't "get." I wouldn't consider this literature, but it does fall into historical fiction, a genre I'm afraid is getting trashier and trashier.