READING July, 2019
(Find out here)
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid July, 2021
Overachiever Lahori boy goes to Princeton and conquers hearts and minds of Wall Street and Erica. But then 911 happens, and predictively everything falls apart. This highly acclaimed book has been made into a major motion picture, but it failed to impress me much. I should have paid attention that it is/was on New York Times bestseller list ;-)
I do have to commend the writer for his courage to broach this topic even if the passage of two decades has
made it easier. He also has a smooth and interesting writing style, and the reading goes down smoothly. Not a bad one if you like that sort of books.
Notes from Underground by Feodor Dostoevsky April, 2021
“Dostoevsky’s most revolutionary novel”, “one of the first existential novels”, “marks the dividing line between nineteenth and twentieth-century fiction”, “a prelude to the great books of his later period”. These are some of the praises you’ll hear about this book, and they are all justified.
In this book an unnamed narrator - a retired civil servant, who has defiantly retreated from the society - in an obsessive, passionate, and self-contradictory monologue delivers a devastating attack on social utopianism
based on his assertion that human beings are essentially irrational in nature. This is quintessential Dostoevsky.
Man cannot be expected to live by reason only because it satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, which is just a small part of his whole life. It ignores his wants, which are very often completely and stubbornly at odds with reason. Man cannot but crave to satisfy his various itches and have his freedom to say that sometimes two plus two equals five, even if it goes against his well-being. May be man doesn’t love well-being only? May be he sometimes loves suffering just as much? Which is better – cheap happiness, or lofty suffering? Well, which is better? You decide.….
Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky April, 2021
A key feature of the American Dream is class mobility. But this is as good as nonexistent today. According to Chomsky’s diagnosis there are ten root causes for this. The first one is a reduction in democracy, something that goes back all the way to the framing of the Constitution.
For example, James Madison, a main framer of the Constitution, felt that the United States system should be designed such that power rests in the hands of the wealth. The major concern of the society must be to
“protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. That’s because the wealthy are the more responsible set of men - they have the public interest at heart, not just parochial interests. Therefore, he advocated a “reduction in democracy”. In contrast, Aristotle, in Politics, the first major book on political system, had argued for a “reduction in inequality” to stave off the danger in a democracy of the poor getting together and taking away the property of the rich.
In Madison’s defense however, it must be said that, Aristotle was thinking of the city-state of Athens, and his democracy was for free men only (not for the slaves). Besides, by 1790s, Madison was bitterly condemning the deterioration of the system he’d created, with stockjobbers and other speculators taking over, destroying the system in the name of their own interests.
The other nine root cause are as follows.
Shaping an ideology (that asserts that the capitalist class is the most persecuted class - see the famous Powell Memorandum by Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in 1971)
Redesign the economy (financial capitalism vs. industrial capitalism)
Shift the (tax) burden away from the rich
Attack solidarity (public education, privatization, identity politics vs. class politics)
Deregulate (Glass-Steagall, revolving door, lobbying, too big to jail/fail)
Election engineering (big money in elections)
Destruction of labor unions
Manufacture consent (PR industry, corporate and government propaganda)
Marginalize the population (unfocussed anger)
Along the way Chomsky points out the two “original sins” of American society that haunt us ever since: decimation of the indigenous population, and massive slavery of another segment of the society.
A very interesting and informative book, chock full of references and arguments to support his diagnosis.
How I Found Livingstone by Henry M. Stanley April, 2021
This book is interesting in multiple ways. It is a travelogue of an expedition halfway across Africa in 1871 from Zanzibar to Ujiji. The journey was led by the author Henry Stanley, a travel reporter of the New York Herald. It is a captivating story of traversing the vast expanse of a mostly unknown, and frequently uncharted, wild terrains of Central Africa. As if overcoming natural and climatic obstacles along the way were not enough, Stanley had to negotiate safe passage of his 100+ men caravan through many tribal areas by paying tributes to the chieftains. This required a touch of diplomacy as well as awareness of local cultures and alliances. The
task was further complicated by occasional conflicts among native tribes and Arabs. Quote a daunting task for a travel reporter! I was surprised to realize the extent of Arab presence in the heart of Africa. The presence was trade based but had unavoidable social and political consequences.
Another way of reading the book is as a story of how Stanley was sent by New York Herald in search of Dr. Livingstone, a British missionary and geographer. Livingstone had been missing while exploring the head waters of the Nile. The now-famous line: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" was the greeting Stanley used when he had encountered Dr. Livingstone. After rescuing Livingstone, Stanley participated in some of Livingstone’s geographic surveys, and assisted him in other ways as well. The historic implications of Livingstone’s explorations were immense. The knowledge gathered by him helped subsequent European colonization of the continent.
PS: I was surprised to see some unusual capabilities of the author, capabilities that seem unusual for a mere travel reporter. He had to plan and organize a large group and then keep it provisioned, motivated and safe throughout this arduous journey. After some digging I found out that Stanley was an abandoned child born out of wedlock in Wales but ended up being Sir Henry Morton Stanley. After rescuing Dr. Livingstone, he made his own explorations in various parts of the world. In his youth he had gone to America to fight in the American Civil War, first in the Confederate Army, then in the Union Army, and finally in the Union Navy!
I had the distinct pleasure of reading a book copy that was published in 1889, complete with engraved drawings and gilded book edges. The pages were yellowish and brittle, so I had to handle them carefully. The book includes a large African atlas, secured in a back pocket. But I didn’t dare to take it out and open it lest I destroy the fragile paper. Too bad. I’d have loved to have followed Stanley’s journey on the map.
This is one of my rare forays in recently published books; this time with a book that I had picked up from the display shelf in the local library - The best American essays from 2020. What better way to find out what occupy our collective psyche?
Out of the 27 essays, the one I liked best was 77 Sunset Me by Peter Schjeldahl. In it a 77-year-old cancer patient, with a limited life expectancy, reminisces about his life. It is a powerful piece that evokes a sense of
foreboding, sadness, but also admiration. We forget all too easily that we are all on the same boat.
But what caught my attention most was a group of essays – representing about a fourth of all essays – that deal with identity issues like race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. They poignantly express the depth of emotional experiences that can come from one’s identity. Our identity is based on who we think we are, and ultimately controls our behavior. And yet, I felt a sense of unease in seeing such focus on identity. Why? For three reasons.
First, too much focus on identity can go at the expense of other perspectives. Class is just one example. As a result, certain important factors can remain unappreciated.
Second, an excessive focus on identity may create a sense of victimhood. And since victimhood can breed powerlessness, that’s the last thing one needs when faced with adversity.
And finally, and most importantly, our identify is neither singular, nor static. For example, I was born in Bangladesh and later became a naturalized American citizen. Therefore, I am a Bangladeshi American. But I am also a husband, a Minnesotan, an Asian, a father, a retired scientist, a book lover, a hobby photographer, a line dancer, and a hiker who has a Ph.D. in science from Germany, speaks German, and is politically independent. Moreover, I have lived in Europe for two decades, including six years behind the iron curtain. My identity has many facets. Which ones come to the fore depend on the context and the situation. Reducing my identity to a Bangladeshi American is like looking at a kaleidoscope and describing me with a single color and shape. This state of affairs is true for every one of us. If this has piqued your interest, check out Identity and Violence – The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate of Indian origin. He explains all these much more eloquently than I ever could (see here).
The trouble with focusing on singular identities is not only that of a distorted reality, but it can also cause division and polarization within the society. The human history is full of examples where a singular identity has been misused with horrific results, be it along religious, ethnic, language, or other lines. I understand the importance of creating a movement based on common issues. But a coalition that is based on a broader base (rather than singular identities) leads to solutions that are less divisive, less polarizing, and therefore more harmonious and stable.
Here I must emphasize that this critique is not targeted at the essayists. An essay has every right to focus on singular issues. My critique is diffusively at the society at large that, in my opinion, is overly focused on singular identities. The selection of essays on this book is just a representation of this trend.
With that, and rather unintentionally, I have fallen under the spell of writing an essay myself – on identity.
I would be remiss if I didn’t quote editor Andre Aciman’s excellent comments on what is and what isn’t an essay. Enjoy and be enlightened!
“If it knew where it was headed, it would be a report, not an essay; if it had already concluded its argument, it would be an article, not an essay; if it had something to teach or censure, it might be a critique, or an opinion, but not an essay. If it narrated the struggles to recover, say from a terrible childhood, or from poverty, or abuse, loss, grief, addiction, sickness, accidents, and so many other traumatic experiences, it might be an expose, not an essay. And finally, if, like a clever little ditty, it started somewhere, then meandered elsewhere, and finally, after all manner of agile acrobatics, pirouetted its way back exactly where it started, it would be a piece, but it would not be an essay.
An essay is like a story, only with the difference that the author may have no idea where he is headed. He might know what he feels and wants to say, but he may not know how to get there yet and, frequently, changes his mind midessay or even midsentence. But more importantly, an essay doesn’t seek to conclude anything – at least at first – because it is more rudderless than anyone suspects; it doesn’t even want to arrive at knowledge, because its main purpose is to speculate, to explore, to propose, do delay, to reconsider, and always, always to find a pretext to think some more. The last thing an essay seeks is closure; it prefers dilation, errancy, and the need to get lost, as one does when visiting a foreign city only to discover, by sheer happenstance, exactly what one didn’t even know one was looking to find. The author of an essay dislikes certitudes and retains the right to change his mind, to cradle not just skepticism but indecision and contradiction as he is writing, even if in the polishing up of an essay he decides to erase all the leads he followed, and all the messy footprints left behind in a road he realizes he should not have taken and which he doesn’t want his readers ever to suspect he’d once considered. And yet it is the very foray, which he decided to discard and of which no sign exists any longer, that spurred his very best thinking.”
Notes from a Dead House by Fyodor Dostoevsky February, 2021
Notes from a Dead House (also translated as The House of the Dead) was one of two books that Dostoevsky had published shortly after his 4-years of military service, preceded by another 4-years in a hard labor prison, in Siberia. He was sentenced for his involvement with a utopian socialist society. Both books are about his prison experience but were written in a pseudo-autobiographical form. He did that to avoid censorship by the tsarist Russian authorities. The other book was Notes from Underground. Both became an instant success, and had initiated the genre of prison memoir, which unfortunately, went on to acquire major
importance in Russian literature.
These four harsh years in the prison had a profound influence on Dostoevsky’s life and his future literary work - something already anticipated by Dostoevsky. Even on the same evening he was convicted, more than 8 years ago, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky had written to his elder brother Mikhail, saying “Brother! I swear to you I will not lose hope and will preserve my spirit and my heart in purity. I’ll be reborn to the better”. And reborn was he - which went on even after his immediate release from the prison.
As he started his military service in Siberia, which was the second part of his punishment, he requested his brother in St. Petersburg to send him the Quran, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel, and many other books. He was clearly intent on rethinking his former utopian socialism both historically and philosophically. He wrote: “I won’t even try to tell you what transformations went on in my soul, my faith, my mind, and my heart in those four years…”
The crucible of the hard labor prison gave him a unique perspective on human nature. Dostoevsky, as a nobleman, had to live with violent, common criminals, and without any special rights. He was an outcast. Any newcomer common criminal, within a few two hours of his arrival, became the same as all others - at home and one of them. But not a nobleman. Even after years, and even after they stopped insulting him, he remained an outcast.
Instead of becoming bitter, Dostoevsky opened up his mind to fathom the difference not only between him and the common people, but also between his former assumptions about the abstract figure of a “Russian peasant”, as idealized by the radical intelligentsia, and the reality. What he saw in these “simple people” were deep, strong, beautiful natures. “And it often gave me joy to find gold under a rough exterior”. He wrote. “You need only peel off the external, superficial husk and look at the kernel more closely, attentively, without prejudice, and you will see such things in the people as you never anticipated. There are not much our wise men can teach the people. I will even say positively – in the contrary, they themselves ought to learn from them”. This maturity and complexity of character of the "Russian peasants", with a capacity for extremes of both evil and good, destroyed his basic assumptions of their need for a utopian socialism for their own good that he had embraced as a young man.
He also observed that “Man survives it all! Man is a creature who gets used to everything, and that, I think, is the best definition of him.” On the other hand, there is a level below which even the basest criminal will not descend to. “The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being.”
This is a book from the most creative imaginative of all Russian authors. And yet, it has less creative imagination than any of his other works. That's because at this stage, Dostoevsky was still an asker of questions, and not yet the purveyor of answers. Here the convicts are the raw material of human nature, which he is determined to probe in a spirit of inquiry. What he learned here, gave rise to his masterpieces like Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, a Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov, to name the five most celebrated ones.
Dostoyevsky His Life and Work by Roland Hingley January, 2021
“Brother! I swear to you I will not lose hope and will preserve my spirit and my heart in purity. I’ll be reborn to the better”, promised Dostoevsky to his brother Mikhail, on the same evening that he was condemned to 4 years of hard labor, followed by additional 4 years of military service in Siberia. Earlier on the same day, the Emperor Nicholas I had staged a mock execution of all 21 convicts at the Semyonovsky square, St. Petersburg, before changing their sentence at the very last minute.
The next day, on Christmas Eve 1849 at midnight, Dostoevsky began his arduous two-thousand-mile journey to the military prison in western Siberia. The 28 years old Dostoevsky was a political prisoner for his participation in a secret utopian socialist society.
And reborn was Dostoevsky in ways no one could have imagined, and more slowly than even Dostoevsky might have thought. From a left-leaning anti-monarchist, he evolved into a Christian monarchist and a staunch Russian patriot. During his time in the prison, the convicts served as the raw material for studying human nature. Human beings, he came to believe, are perfectly capable of simultaneously holding on to contradictory emotions and values, even in their extreme forms, and behaving accordingly. He believed this to be universal - true for all social strata. Because of their capricious, irrational, inconsistent and unpredictable nature, he rejected humanity’s ability to construct an ideal society based on reason. Such views permeate his entire literary work.
Unlike his contemporaries Turgenev and Tolstoy, who were rich aristocrats, Dostoevsky lived almost his entire life under extreme pressure of poverty - often forced to deliver promised manuscripts under intense time pressure. To escape the crushing debt, he even lived in exile in Europe for a few years. Paradoxically, his sufferings, rather than having hampered his genius, might have been the exact stimulus he needed to spark his brilliance as a novelist. “At least I’ve lived; I may have suffered, but I have lived” – once he wrote to his friend about the hardship he had to face in life.
Dostoevsky's short exile in Europe didn't work out very well. He was too much of a Russian to feel comfortable in Europe. He found Germany depressingly full of Germans and Switzerland depressingly full of Swiss! This should not be interpreted as xenophobia. He readily acknowledged that "practically all existing Russian progress, learning, art and civic virtues" stemmed from Europe. But he was also very aware of Russia's special situation: "Russians are as much Asiatic as European. The mistake of our policy for the past two centuries has been to make the people of Europe believe that we are true Europeans..... We have bowed ourselves like slaves before the Europeans and have only gained their hatred and contempt. It is time to turn away from ungrateful Europe. Our future is in Asia." [A pretty blunt statement, but after a hindsight of one and a half century, this sounds pretty prescient]
Dostoevsky’s first true breakthrough was Poor Folk, written before his political imprisonment. His rehabilitation, under the strict censorship in the imperial Russia, had to be crafted carefully by what and where he published. Examples are Notes from a Dead House, and Notes from Underground. They were about his prison time in Siberia but were framed as pseudo autobiographical books. Both are especially interesting because at this stage of his literary career he was still an asker of questions about human nature, and not yet a purveyor of answers.
Crime and Punishment was the first of his five long novels on which his literary reputation rests. Starting with this novel, and all the way to his last, and the most accomplished, novel The Brothers Karamazov, is a clear thread of his love of his fellow men, and the incredible mountain of misfortunes, calamities and insults he piles on them. It is the tension between these two that makes Dostoevsky such a successful novelist. The other three of his reputed novels are The Idiot, Devils, and A Raw Youth. In Dostoevsky's own words, The Idiot was his favorite. But it has to be remembered that he had made that comment before he had written The Brothers Karamazov.
Tolstoy was Dostoevsky's contemporary. But despite having much mutual esteem for each other, they never met face to face. With Turgenev, on the other hand, he had an intense love-hate relationship.
Minneapolis, aka Mill City - my neighboring city across the Mississippi River. A metropolitan jewel in the upper Midwest, renowned for its culture, livability, and healthy living. But it has a checkered past. At the turn of the 20th century, Minneapolis had descended into abysmal corruption and lawlessness, especially during the fourth mayoral term of “Dirty Doc Ames”. The episode had so shocked the city that a series of reforms were undertaken with significant success – albeit with one significant interlude with violent crimes, when after 1917, Prohibition created a new brand of gangster, flush with cash. Men like Isadore Blumenfeld, aka "Kid
Cann” would then run vast networks of rackets and murder. But that’s a different story.
This story is that of the rise and fall of “Doc Ames”, more accurately Alberto Alonzo Ames. He was a popular and charismatic physician with a knack and ambition for politics. Besides getting to know a lot about the past history of my neighboring big city, the book also reminds me how certain things don't change.
What haven’t changed? For one, the character profile of politicians. They are still the few who know how to appeal to the common people – both with genuine public service and demagogy. Neither has their propensity changed to succumb to corruption and exploitation of power. It was also amusing to read that “newspapers at the turn of the 20th century were notoriously biased, operated by editors and backed by advertisers with their own political agenda”. The only difference today is that instead of many, just 5 mega corporations control the narrative in the entire country (Disney, AT&T, Comcast, Viacom, and News Corp/Murdoch). And then there are the matters of back room dealings, rigged primaries and elections, etc.
Although this book is about Doc Ames, it includes a few short paragraphs about his father, Alfred Elisha Ames. Reading them makes me want to read a book about him too. His father came from a poor farmer family in Vermont. He was a learned brick maker, but also cut rails in winter for additional income. Later he moved to Illinois and (somehow) managed to become deputy to Illinois’s secretary of state, as well as the private secretary to the Governor. Yearning for more, he began attending medical lectures in Chicago. As he continued his studies, he got elected to the state house of representatives, and also picked up an appointment as a local postmaster. Later he moved to Minnesota where he became the first civilian doctor in the area. He became a highly regarded and well-to-do member of the community. Among other things, he was one of the eight original founding members of the University of Minnesota! Alfred Elisha Ames was certainly an exceptional example of a self-taught, self-made person. Is this still possible in this country?
It's a strange Freudian world. A world inhabited by the strangest of all animals – the (wo)man. This strangest of animals is the only one that has the capacity for neurosis. The neurosis comes from the suppression of its desires. But that is a hard thing to do because man's essence consists, not as Descartes maintained, in thinking, but in desiring and in seeking pleasure. Man is stuck between his desires and the reality and is compelled to suppress his desires.
For Freud, this neurosis is the key to explaining human behavior. But here, Brown casts Freud’s psychoanalysis net wider to explain developments of human language, arts, history, religion, and even civilization. He brings in Darwin, Hegel, Nietzsche, and others to observe that the human ego is not even master in its own house; and that man is a restless and discontent animal. Is it any wonder that Our history is shaped, beyond our conscious wills, not by the cunning of Reasons but by the cunning of Desires? Therefore, world history is an ever-increasing neurosis" (Nietzsche). I can sign up to this conclusion as well.
I didn't find it an easy read - it's way out of my league. Brown's hypothesis is incomplete and contested; interestingly even by his own later writings. Nevertheless, the book did widen my mental horizon, which is the most important thing. I was also reminded that it is a fallacy to expect most people to act rationally.
PS: Freud's hypothesis is the most successful of the three main theories on human psychology. The other two are from Albert Adler and Viktor Frankl. Interestingly, all three were from Vienna, Austria! Could it be that the richly chocolate filled Wiener Sachertorte does something to your brains? But joke aside, unlike Freud, for whom human behavior is driven by the pursuit of pleasure (and the accompanying guilt), Alfred Adler's theory is based on human quest for power. And for Frankl, it is about our search for the meaning of life. Here are my comments on Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning that I had read last year.
Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic December, 2020
This is an inspiring tale of personal growth - the journey of the 4th of July born, all American Yankee Doodle Boy Ron Kovic, from an unquestioning patriot to an activist patriot. Life is not about what cards you get handed, but about how you deal with them.
Movie: The 1989 movie starring Tom Cruise and directed by Oliver Stone, was a great box office hit. I liked the movie better than the book, which is a rarity.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque December, 2020
The end came undramatically - “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the western front.” The cryptic sentence suggests that he took his own life, which paradoxically is dramatic because 70% of German soldiers in World War I died from enemy fire in the trenches.
He was Paul Bäumer, who had volunteered for the Western Front at the age of 18, together with his entire
class. It did not take long for the reality to hit home though, as he reflects: “I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow…..”. And when all his friends fell, he realized that even if he survived, his generation was already lost, broken, and burnt. The war will be over and forgotten; the earlier generation will return to its old ways, and the next generation will be strangers who’ll not understand his cohorts.
Paul Bäumer is a stand-in for his entire generation – a lost generation, condemned not for their crimes but for the failings of their fathers. Even worse, Paul Bäumer’s generation is just a stand-in for countless other generations all over the world, and throughout the human history – who too were not condemned for their own crimes but for the failings of their fathers, and increasingly their grandfathers (if I consider the age of our country’s political leaders).
PS: This greatest antiwar novel of all times is well known in this countnry, but strangely, the war is a forgotten one. There is no memorial for WW I in Washington DC! It is a war without a myth. That’s because, unlike WW II, this war had failed to establish America’s dominance over rest of the world. No triumph of League of Nations, no triumph of Wilsonianism.
But in Europe, World War I was a pivotal moment. It was the first mechanized war that had led to the demise of horse-mounted cavalry. Recognizing the changed nature of future warfare, and to prepare for the next war, the German military leadership had started a “Im Felde unbesiegt” campaign (unconquered in the front), even before the war was over. During the next decades, a massive number of publications were printed in Germany to support the idea that it was the vast mechanized superiority of the enemy, rather than the lack of valor of the German soldiers, that had caused the defeat. That’s why so much was published on the highly mechanized western front, and so little on the eastern front. Remarque’s antiwar novel was a distinct outlier. He had to flee to Switzerland to avoid Nazi prosecution.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene November, 2020
The adjective “quiet” is not what one expects to see before “American”. Many other adjectives, but not quiet. Thanks to Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s famous political novel, the word that had popped up in my mind, when I had picked up this book, was “ugly”. Both are fictions and both deal with America’s involvement in Indochina. But Graham Greene wrote his novel before, and Burdick and Lederer after, America’s misadventures. Greene was not only more measured, but also prescient.
Graham Greene’s American, Alden Pyle, is willfully naïve; to some extent may be even self-servingly innocent, who has little understanding of neither the subject of his attention – be it the world he is out to save, or the people around him - nor the damage he is capable of doing. In one instance, his good acquaintance Fowler, was forced to concede that he “never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused”. This was after Pyle was genuinely trying to convince Fowler that Fowler’s mistress Phuong’s interests would be best served if Pyle were to marry her! His approach to helping the Vietnamese people is fundamentally not much different.
PS: A probable solution to the seemingly unlikely title of the book was suggested by a literature critic. After declaring Alden Pyle a prattling fool, he added that “Pyle (Greene was good with names and associations) goes on to illustrate the joke’s unspoken punchline: the only quiet American is a dead American”. Not surprisingly, after its publication in the United States in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. That didn’t stop it from being adapted into successful films by Hollywood in 1958 and most recently in 2002.
Movie: Watched the 2002 movie starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, after reading the book. As usual, the book was better. The movie is less subtle because the book had the "advantage" of being written before the magnitude of the American tragedy indo-China became obvious. The movie is still worth watching.
Dreaming Up America by Russell Banks November, 2020
America! The greatest marketing success story in human history - with the American Dream as the Killer App. It is the magnet that has attracted millions of people from all over the world – people who are adventurous, entrepreneurial, risk takers, etc. They have made this country what it is. And yet, there is little consensus on what this American Dream is. On one end, it is the beckoning of unimaginable material success – going from rags to riches; striking the motherlode of gold; a career path that is destined to make a dishwasher a millionaire, etc. On the other end, “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it”! That was the irrepressible George Carlin quipping. That’s fair enough. If we don’t have
influence even over our own dreams, what business do we have in judging those of others?
Therefore, a more fruitful endeavor would be to explore the genesis of this chimera called American dream. This book does just that. It starts with some historic contexts and explores how they have shaped the American Dream. It reminds us that North America was colonized in the 17th century by different European groups, in segregated regions, and with very different identities and goals. The English came (to New England) in search of religious freedom. The Dutch came (to the Hudson Valley) strictly for commercial reasons – to fish and to trade for beaver and lumber. And the Spanish sailed to southern coast for gold; with no particular ambition to make a community.
Not only did they have different goals, they also had very different identities. They felt more English, French or Spanish than a common European. They certainly did not have an American identity. How and when they started to feel American were also different. The English led the way. That’s because England viewed its colonies as franchises – giving them a lot of autonomy. The colonists set up administrative structures that operated rather independently from the mother country. As a result, they stopped feeling English much earlier than the French, the Dutch or the Spanish. It took much longer for others because they were ruled from home, as if the colonies were branch offices.
So, the genesis of the American Dream is a complex story of disparate goals of multiple groups of people, coalescing together over time to give us the final product. Looking at the history, a case can be made that there were at least three distinct dreams to start with. There was El dorado, the City of Gold that Cortez dreamed of finding. There was Ponce de Leon’s dream of the Fountain of Youth, where you could start life all over again. And there was the New England Puritan dream of God’s Protestant utopian City on a Hill. One is of a place where a poor man can become wealthy; one is of a place where a person can start all over again, and one is of a place where a sinner can become virtuous. All three dreams were there, side by side at first, but gradually merging. As they did, they became the three braided strands that mutually reinforced each other – becoming much more powerful together than any one of them alone could.
By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, as the northern New England colonies began to attach themselves to the middle colonies of New York, Maryland and Virginia – and as the southern colonies (South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgina) began to draw together, and as the English established a kind of cultural hegemony across the eastern seaboard, the three dreams merged. We had the American Dream!
There are much more in this book, including how the vast number of African slaves, who were present from the beginning, have influenced American psyche (and continue to). The author points out that the two most powerful American novels from the nineteenth century are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The one is a story of an obsessed, monomaniacal white man in charge of a racially mixed crew, following the possibly mad captain into the Western sea in search of a white whale. The other is a search by a white boy and a black man for racial clarity on a raft floating down the Mississippi River.
The author then delves into the present, diagnosing the many manipulations and exploitations of the American Dream. He asserts that it were not the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and the Fords who believed in the American Dream, but those who worked for them. The latter believed and lived the American Dream and built this country.
PS: Comedians, especially the best of them, have an uncanny ability to peer deep into a society's psyche and expose its hidden sores and expose them. They do so in a way that make people laugh. And people lough because they need, they want, a balsam to be put on those sores. Sores, they are acutely aware of - sometimes subconsciously - but do not have the courage or the ability to expose for fear of being ridiculed, or being branded failures. This has been so in every society, and every country throughout human history. I have personally experienced this in the former East Germany, and I have read about it in the former Soviet Union during its dying years. George Carlin was doing just that about the American Dream.
Russel Banks is doing so in a different way, likely for a somewhat different audience. He is highly acclaimed for exploring in his fictions the common man's brush with the American Dream. In today's vocabulary they may well be the "deplorables". I haven't read any of his books, but several are on my reading list. This book is his only nonfiction.
Sun Yat Sen Liberator of China by Henry Bond Restarick October, 2020
The mighty Mississippi begins as a mere trickle from Lake Itasca and the Chinese Revolution started out as a minor act of vandalism in a village temple in the southern province of Guangdong in China. A beginning cannot predict the end - neither in geography nor in history. Dynamics that are unknown, unknowable, and even nonexistent in the beginning decide the outcome. It is only after the fact that we see the connections because “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”, as Steve Jobs had said.
It all started in 1885 when a village youth Tai Cheong, and his friend Luke Ho Tung, gathered a small group and vandalized the gods in the village temple. Among the idols was Buck Dai, the god to whose service Tai Cheong’s mother had dedicated him. It was an act of defiance against the backwardness of the then Chinese society, including their superstitious beliefs. That minor act ultimately developed into a struggle that overturned the rule of the backward and despotic Manchu dynasty. It prepared China’s path to independence and modernization. Tai Cheong later became known as Dr. Sun Yat Sen and the Father of the Nation. His friend Ho Tung became the first martyr of the revolution, when in 1895, in the first of many attempts at revolution, he was captured and beheaded by the Manchu government. Ho Tung had stayed behind to allow Sun Yat Sen to escape. Revolution is not for the timid.
It took many aborted attempts, much organizing inside and outside of China, and repeated exiles for Sun Yat Sen before there was any semblance of success. The only thing consistent was his indefatigable belief in his cause. A milestone came finally in 1912 when Sun Yat Sen was elected as the first President of Chinese Republic in 1912 in Shanghai. But it was only the beginning of further upheavals that ultimately led first to the unification of the country under Chiang Kai-shek and later the partition of the country into People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (ROC). Unfortunately, Sun Yat Sen died in 1925, long before these events. To some extent, his was an unfinished revolution. But still, he is revered in both parts of China as the Father of the Revolution.
I was rather surprised by western education’s and Christianity’s influence on Sun Yat Sen; influences that should have been very unlikely for the son of a poor rice farmer in China. But it just happened that his elder brother Ah Mi had been living in Hawaii as a rice planter. He brought his younger brother over and enrolled him in an Anglican church boarding school (Iolani), that was admitting a limited number of Chinese students. His six years of school in Hawaii undoubtedly made him aware of the backwardness of the then China. Even after returning to China, he continued to take advantage of educational opportunities offered by Christian missions and ultimately studied medicine at the College of Medicine in Hong Kong, which was established by the British. Later, also converted to Christianity.
Equally surprisingly, Sun Yat Sen was an American citizen! He acquired his citizenship by falsely claiming to be born in Hawaii. The loophole was a clause in the US Congressional Act that had enabled the annexation of Hawaii by treaty in 1898, that automatically gave American citizenship to anyone who had been born in Hawaii prior to that date. What is it with Hawaii and birth certificates? :-)
Sun Yat Sen traveled frequently and widely in USA to organize the Chinese living there. He even organized camps in the USA for them to be trained militarily under Homer Lea. While those military training served to keep alive the men's interest in the revolution, it is doubtful whether many went to China to fight the revolution.
Japan played an important role too. It was both a role model as a country that had adopted western education and systems, and a safe haven for organizing his revolution. The revolution also seems to have tapped into Chinese resentment, especially in the south, of the ruling Manchus (the Qing Dynasty), who they did not consider to be proper Chinese.
Along the way, I learned some interesting tidbits about Hawaii. Hawaii was “discovered” in 1778 by Captain Cook and named the Sandwich Islands. Later, the islands were used by merchant ships engaged in the flourishing trade between Canton and the northwest coast of America for acquiring provisions in between. After 1876, Hawaii started to have a significant number of Chinese who were brought from Canton as laborers for the sugar industry. The Hawaiian Republic was inaugurated on July 4, 1894 and was later annexed by the USA in 1898.
This book was written in 1931 by the first American bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii. I should probably read additional books that cover the Chinese Revolution from other perspectives and with a longer hindsight.
The Abundance by Amit Majmudar October, 2020
I bumped into this book in the library just as I was feeling an urge to read something lighter. At that time, I was right in the middle of a Sun Yet Sen’s biography. I thought that a bittersweet tale about deshihood in America would suit fine. When I came home, I habitually peeked into the book, just to check it out. Wow! Amit Majmudar writes so beautifully and with such a perceptive mind that I immediately got hooked. I didn’t touch Sun Yat Sen’s biography until I was finished with this book.
I won’t spoil your pleasure by revealing too much about the story. I’ll only mention that there is a lot of depth
in it about intergenerational relations, especially within families that have chosen to be uprooted. It is simply amazing how Majmudar, as a relatively young male, writes in the first person as an elderly mother who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I think Amit Majmudar will go far as a writer. I’ll probably also read his debut historical fiction Partition, which has been highly acclaimed.
She came to Britain from India in 1889 and described herself as an “Indian”, a “Parsee”, a modern woman, and a Christian. She was a sari-clad woman, a barrister-at-law, a fighter for women’s education, a teacher at an exclusively men’s college, and the first woman ever of any background to get the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford. She was Cornelia Sorabji.
He is a Bengali born in Dhaka, an Indian, an economist, an Asian, a Hindu by birth, an atheist by choice, an alumnus of Trinity College, Cambridge, a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard, a cancer
survivor, and a Nobel laureate. His name is Amartya Sen. Which “singular” identity defines her or him?
We do not have such colorful pedigrees, but still have many identities. These are our ethnicity, gender, religion by birth, class, citizenship(s), language(s), profession(s), expertise and accomplishments, political affiliations, hobbies, philosophical and moral leanings, etc. We naturally prioritize the various aspects of our identity depending on the context and “wear” them as necessary.
On the other hand, there are theories that presume the unique relevance of a certain singular identity while ignoring all other aspects. Examples include singular identities baed on civilization, religion, culture, ethnicity, etc. This is unfortunate, wrong, and dangerous. Wrong because it ignores the richness of our being, thereby dehumanizing us. It is also wrong because any group of people, defined by a singular identity, will be heterogeneous in most other aspects.
Even worse, it is dangerous. Dangerous because such concepts divide people in groups to emphasize a certain aspect of their diverse identity, while suppressing their many commonalities. This can and has been (mis)used throughout history for political purposes, causing social unrests at best and genocides at worst. As Sen says, intentionally or unintentionally “it lays the foundation for misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world, even before going on to the drumbeats of a civilizational clash”.
Sen sees no rationale for a clash of civilizations or of religions. Throughout history, civilizations have developed through an interplay with other civilizations, for which Sen gives ample examples. The western civilization is not a pure western product; neither is it supreme. The lack of understanding of the complex nature of how civilizations develop creates much hubris on one side, and inferiority complex on the other - leading to unnecessary conflicts.
Amartya Sen also notes that categorizing people according to their religion is wrong. All religions, including Islam, are diverse in practice and interpretation. This has been true historically and is true contemporarily - as he proves convincingly with many examples. Such a separation of people along their religion sets up a trap for misuse. Even well-intentioned attempts to promote a “moderate version” of a religion is counterproductive. That’s because they too, possibly unwittingly, support the notion of the blanket predominance of a religious identity for people of that religion at the expense of their all other identities. As Sen says, “Religion is not, and cannot, be a person’s all-encompassing identity”.
Along the way, Amartya Sen shares his thoughts on conflicts created by multiculturalism and globalization. In both cases, the concept of identity plays a pivotal role. He also points out confusions about multiculturalism. Is a "plurality of monocultures" same as "multicultural"? How about balancing the rights of an emigrated community to conserve its traditional culture vs. the rights of its members, usually younger ones, to choose something different from the host country? As for globalization, he notes that global protests against globalization paradoxically reveal our embrace of a global identity! What these protests are really about is not globalization but inequality that it is being allowed to foster.
Sen concludes by strongly advocating the use of reason to skillfully navigate the traps of identity - be that of singular identity, multiculturalism or problems of globalization. This is where I have my doubts because human beings, sadly, are emotional animals. I hope I am wrong.
PS: My five-stars rating indicates what I think of this book. My assessment may have something to do with my own experience of living in multiple countries and cultures. The book has given me clarity about things, some of which I was not consciously aware of. I had picked up the book from the library just as my ever inquisitive, childhood friend Emran was quizzing me about my multiple identities! The two incidents were completely unrelated.
I have known of Amartya Sen for a long time, but this is my first book by him. This will not be the last one.
The Inkblots by Damion Searls September, 2020
Why do human beings have an emotional reaction when faced with some inanimate shape or image? And does that reaction tell something about our mind? Those were the questions that had set Hermann Rorschach, a contemporary of the two legendary psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, on his path to develop this test. He came from an artistically talented family and spent many years experimenting with images that hover between meaninglessness and meaning - right on the borderline between all too obvious and not obvious enough. The images sometimes imply movement. But they are unique in more than
shape. The colors elicit emotion; even override shapes, sometimes but not always. They are supposed to draw out the subconscious mind of the observer, and thereby reveal its inner workings. They are like “a fluoroscope into the psyche”..
He created ten images, each horizontally symmetric, with a white border around it, and painted on individual 9.5” x 6.5” cards that you can hold and turn in your hands. That’s Rorschach test, devised by a Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, which he published as Psychodiagnostik in 1921. It has the aura of being the “queen of psychological tests”.
The copyright to the ten images has long expired. But the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Society requires their psychologists to keep them “secure". Therefore, the Rorschach images we see in everyday life are imitations – blurred or modified to reveal something about the image but not everything. By the way, inkblot test is a misnomer, because Rorschach used neither ink nor blotting to create the images.
The book is chock-full of details about the test’s rise to fame, further developments as well as controversies from its beginning to now. The two primary controversies are the lack of a theoretical underpinning, and the scoring criteria. Rorschach was well aware of them; but before he could finish his work, he died prematurely at 37, of appendicitis.
Other interesting tit bits include the third, today forgotten, “giant of psychology” - the one beside Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. He is credited with naming the disease schizophrenia and inventing the term autism. He was Eugene Bleuler, the boss and early mentor of Carl Jung (as well as Rorschach). There was an interesting relationship between Bleuler, Freud and Jung. It was a triangle of attraction, repulsion, and self-interest - sometimes productive, sometimes not. Bleuler was the one with the most willingness to learn from others, but also had the least ego. The latter trait probably explains why Bleuler is forgotten today – so is life!
In the early 1940s, the Rorschach test became immensely popular in the US, aided by two trends. The first one was its use in the US military during the World War 2. The other one was a general shift in American attitude from valuing character to valuing personality. It became more important to project being attractive, creative, forceful, etc. rather than to demonstrate serving a higher moral, duty, honor, etc. And the Rorschach test was viewed as the X-ray that could expose the hidden, all important, personality. Andy Warhol’s 1984 painting Rorschach is a testimony to its influence on the American pop culture.
At the height of Rorschach test’s popularity came the Nuremberg trial. There was an enormous public interest to understand how anyone could commit such crimes, and to peer into the abyss of evil in the minds of the Nazi monsters. One of the tools prominently used by the psychologists was the Rorschach test. To the dismay of all, the Nazi leadership was found to have an above average intelligence (IQ), but their psychic profile revealed no stamp of evil!
The disappointment stems from our flawed inclination to overemphasize intelligence when evaluating a person. A much better job can be done, rather surprisingly, if we assess people as we do computers. According to this approach, the intelligence of a person is no more than the hardware and operating system of a computer. Obviously, that is not enough. To perform well, a person, just like a computer, also needs good software and data. But that is a whole different discussion…
Finally, one enduring criticism of Rorschach test relates to its objectivity. How much does the test reveal about the subject’s psyche vs. that of the investigator himself as he interprets the results? But I’d argue that this applies to all psychological tests. The mind of another person is probably one of the most impenetrable realms in the universe. As Nikolai Kublin, the Russian Futurist artist, musician and theorist said: “The self does not know anything except its own feelings, and while projecting these feelings it creates its own world.” We ALL live in our own individual realities that others can, at best, guess about. But judge? Hardly.
PS: The failure to identify an innate evil psyche among the Nazi leadership at Nuremberg does not surprise me. Ever since I had emigrated from Germany to the USA, I have been asked how Hitler and Nazi rule could take hold there, and if there is something special with Germans that made this possible. My answer, with increasing bluntness over time, has been the same - there is nothing special with the German people, society or culture that predisposes them to such evil. Rather, given a set of suitable conditions, this can happen anywhere. That’s because all people, everywhere, are driven by similar fundamental behavior patterns.
I have also come to the conclusion that traits that allow evil to get a creeping foothold include a willingness to overlook the violation of certain universal moral standards for the sake of some supposed pragmatism. And the second trait is the unwillingness to take Edmund Burke’s wisdom seriously - “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Evil - sadly even great evil - is rather banal, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad August, 2020
"The horror! The horror!" - was the last whisper captain Marlow heard Kurtz utter in his deathbed. It was a cry no more than a breath. But when Conrad published Heart of Darkness in 1899, that whisper reverberated throughout the English literature louder than any scream could have. What Kurtz exactly meant remains elusive. It is never explained in the story except in hints and indications.
That may sound surprising - then the novella plays out in Belgian Congo during the reign of King Leopold II, where there is plenty to be horrified about. But then, captain Marlow is no ordinary narrator - as we learn
from the anonymous first narrator at the very beginning of the story. As captain Marlow and three other acquaintances, hosted by the Company Director, await turn of the tide on Thames on broad the cruising yawl Nellie, and even before Marlow starts to "spin his yarn", the anonymous first narrator lets the reader know that “the yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical, and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”
If that is so, then all the visible, representational elements in the story are not for their own sake (e.g. giving the reader information about imperialism in the Belgian Congo), but to make something else visible – something “unseen” or even “unseeable”, like the dark matter of the universe. The heart of darkness!
But Heart of Darkness is among the most interpreted books in English literature and can be read in many ways. If read as the first kind of seaman’s yarn, then it is a clear indictment of hypocrisy and imperial ethics. One also cannot ignore the dehumanized way Conrad treats Africa and Africans in the story. No wonder that Chinua Achebe, in a scathing critique, brands Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist”. I think that Achebe's critique is justified; I have noticed this unfortunate trait in another of Conrad's classics Lord Jim.
Then there are others who read Heart of Darkness differently, e.g. as a challenge to the then prevailing British readers’ view of nature having two primary roles only - the passive object of imperial commerce and evolution’s meritocracy of fitness. It is interesting the in Marlow’s Congo, the word “ivory” rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. But the word “elephant” doesn’t appear a single time – as if the word has been hunted to extinction! And Kurtz’s fate certainly doesn’t project the supposed superiority of the European race over the natives in Africa.
Movie: There have been a handful of attempts at producing a film version of Heart of Darkness. The best known is Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Coppola, and featuring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen. The screenplay is very loosely based on the book - the setting was changed from late19th-century Belgian Congo to the Vietnam War. Besides, the river journey from South Vietnam to Cambodia is undertaken not to get Kurtz back but to assassinate him. The screen credits do not mention the novella, while interestingly not distancing the film from the novel. I watched the movie immediately after having read the novella. Truth be told, I was immensely disappointed!
PS: This is my third book by Joseph Conrad - after The Secret Agent and Lord Jim. This time, I read Heart of Darkness in a Norton Critical Edition version. In it, the novella comprises just 73 pages. The remaining 470 pages contain excellent contextual texts and critiques.
The Future is Asian by Parag Khanna July, 2020
The book flashes an unambiguously clairvoyant title in bold red on a black background, ignoring Yogi Berra’s advice that “it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. But the book does provide a fair amount of supporting content for the statement. Besides, Parag Khanna's prescience may not seem like much of a risk in this post COVID pandemic world, now that curtains have been raised, allowing everyone to have a clearer view of certain aspects of geopolitics. But remember, this book was written before the pandemic.
Here though, I am with Parag Khanna. That’s because I was already swayed by Halford Mackinder’s The Geographical Pivot of History, written in 1904. In that short book, Mackinder had convincingly laid out why geography favors a future that is led by Eurasia. Now after more than a century, Khanna comes to the same conclusion, but grounded by recent global demographic, economic, and political trends. And even though the title refers to Asia (rather than Eurasia), the European continent is a peninsula of Asia. Therefore, the massive changes coming from Asia are destined to merge with the dynamics of Europe to create a new world of Eurasian prominence.
Khanna’s conclusion is not new for me, but he does put a lot of things in proper perspective. For example, Asia is much more than just China or even China-plus. China has only 1/3 of Asia’s population, less than 50% of Asia’s GDP, 50% of its outward investment and less than 50% of its inbound investment. Couple that with Asia’s long history of mostly stable subregions based on multi-polarity, rather than hierarchy, as well as its vast religious and ethnic diversity, and it seems logical to expect the future to be Asian rather than Chinese. It’s worth pointing out that it is Singapore, not Peking, that many consider to be Asia’s unofficial capital!
Demographically, Asia represents the center of gravity of the world. It has 60% of the world population, which is 10 times as many as in Europe, and 12 times as many as in North America. It is no surprise that the global economy is increasingly becoming Asia centric. Khanna provides ample data to support this trend.
Besides geography, demography and economy, the fourth factor responsible for the global tectonic shift is the failure of the western democracy to deliver what it espouses – for most western countries, but more importantly, for the emerging and Asian countries. The supposed democratic governance in the west, especially in the USA, has lost the consent of the populace it claims to govern because it has degenerated and has become subservient to big money and special interests. In contrast, several Asian countries (China, Singapore, Vietnam, etc.) now have a track record of tending to the needs of its citizens and the long-term growth of their country with a non-western, technocratic and utilitarian government system. As more Asian countries adopt such a system, Asian will become more important in world economy.
Aside from the many quantifiable trends listed in this book, the qualitative nature of the global seismic change is aptly described by Khanna with one sentence: “Americans and Europeans see walls going up, but across Asia they are coming down – rather than being navel-gazing and pessimistic, billions of Asians are forward-looking, outward-oriented, and optimistic.”
I think many of the predicted changes are inevitable. This may surprise people with a Eurocentric view of the world history. But they should remember that for most of history prior to the Industrial Revolution, Asia far outstripped Europe on indicators of development.
The future doesn’t have to be gloomy for the West. That’s because rather than one superpower simply fading away to be replaced by a successor, if managed properly, a true multipolar and multicivilizational order will develop, in which N. America, Europe and Asia each will represent a major share of power. I can imagine America still being a leading global military power, Europe leading with the quality of its democratic institutions and overall living standards, and Asia recapturing its justified share of economic power in the world.
This is a good book, packed with a wealth of information on a topic of great importance. But the overabundance of details and data can have the contradictory effect of diluting the bigger massage. It’s not that you can’t see the forest for the trees – Khanna does point out the forest. But all too often the reader can find himself lost in a thicket. This book could have been a better one if Parag Khanna were familiar with Mark Twain’s quote: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” I gave it a 3-star rating.
PS: I am no China expert, but I suspect that there is a lot of false and incomplete information in the western press about China, CPC (Communist Party of China) and its governance system. For example, the attached, 7-year-old, TED video raised a lot questions in my mind about Western (corporate) press's objectivity when reporting on China. Similarly, the attached graph is quite an eye opener.
I have no idea why both videos start in the middle of the talk. Please rewind to the beginning to watch.
“I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way….”. With this bold first sentence, Augie March starts retelling his adventures, which is loosely patterned after Bellow’s own experience, starting with the Great depression in 1920s in Chicago.
In his belief that a man’s character is his fate, Augie keeps chasing the “better fate” that he has convinced
himself that he deserves. And, after 500+ pages, the brilliant closing line wraps it up: “Which ….. doesn’t prove there was no America”. A Bildungsroman that strongly reminds me of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Common to both is the experience of growing up as a poor, Jewish immigrant in a big American city.
Saul Bellow was a big influence on Philip Roth. In fact, Saul Bellow is the towering figure that arose from the great American postwar fiction boom. Especially this book put Saul Bellow head-and-shoulders above a rising generation of young contenders, from Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to Kurt Vonnegut, and James Salter. And when he was awarded literature prize in 1976, the Nobel committee especially noted this book. It is also listed among the 100 best novels in the English language.
And yet, I gave Portnoy’s Complaint a 5-star rating, but this one only 3-stars! That's because I found Augie’s countless “adventures” disjointed and often times unconvincing, especially the propensity of his past acquaintances to pop up in the most unlikely places. I am glad, I never tried my hands as a literature critic!
The Age of Gold by W. H. Brands April, 2020
When on January 24, 1848, two “Johns” accidentally struck gold while constructing a sawmill in Coloma, near Sacramento, the California gold rush was born. They were John Marshall, a carpenter with a questionable business acumen, and John Sutter, his Swiss emigrant partner with a questionable reputation at home. The events that followed fundamentally changed the history and the nature of America.
The world of the gold find spread like a bush fire, attracting "argonauts" and fortune seekers from all over
the world. Within a year, California’s population surpassed those of most existing states. Things got so out of hand that local public figures were forced to improvise a government for a large body of strangers. They framed the constitution themselves, instead of waiting for the union to take the initiative, and pushed for statehood. Both were unusual. Until then, a new region first went through a “territorial phase”, during which the population grew slowly through settlement by farmers. Only then was statehood considered. But the rapid pace of developments in California made an exception necessary. But it also deprived everybody the luxury of cool-headed deliberation, especially on an issue that three previous compromises had already failed to bring a consensus – that of slavery (see NOTE 1).
The situation was especially tricky because the 30 states in the union were evenly split between pro and anti-slavery states. The process leading to California’s statehood was tumultuous. One senator Foote even drew a pistol on Senator Benton on the Senate floor for speaking in favor of California’s proposed constitution and calling him a “calumniator”.
The 1850 California Compromise (see NOTE 2) did allow California to join the union as a free state, but it left the slavery issue unresolved – both in California and elsewhere. That festering disagreement ultimately led to the American Civil War (1861-1865). If given enough time, would the pro and anti-slavery states have been able to device a peaceful solution? We can ponder what could have been. History only tells what has been. But for sure, the gold rush is considered to be the beginning of the end of Antebellum.
A book I have read recently is Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. It portrays Abraham Lincoln’s presidency - starting with his election, through the difficult times prosecuting the Civil War and ending with his assassination. The Age of Gold provides an excellent backdrop to the events leading up to Vidal’s book.
From left to right: John Marshall, John Sutter, John Fremont and Jesse Freemont
The gold rush was a defining moment for America in other ways too. It separates what America used to aspire to and what America became. “The old one was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard, of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmers - of men content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year."
The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck! Not that Americans were not already risk takers, and not that America wasn’t already the land of promise. Every immigrant to America is a risk taker. But the gold rush notched it up another level. Ever since, the promise of the land had never been so decidedly and gloriously material.
The gold rush changed the American character in other ways too. In the goldfields one was expected to gamble, and to fail, and to gamble again and again, till success finally came – or energy ran out. The gold rush took away the fetters of guilt and blame, and the stigma of failure. Once this attitude took hold in the west – the spirit soared over rest of the country.
Then there was the transcontinental railway system. The California gold rush was the magnet that attracted, and the crucible that formed, men (and women) capable of dreaming, leading and completing an enterprise of such phenomenal engineering and entrepreneurial audacity. That feat was accomplished in May of 1869, when the lines of Central Pacific coming from west and Union Pacific coming from east joined at Promontory Summit on the north shore of Salt Lake.
It was just the start of a larger, continental network that carried America into the modern industrial age. Between 1869 and the end of nineteenth century, the American economy grew as no economy had ever done before and very few did later. The secret to America’s ascent to economic primacy was neither cleverness of its inventors (England was more prolific), nor the richness of its resources (Russia was richer). Rather, the secret was its vast domestic market. And it was the transcontinental railway network that connected the vast domestic market.
The lack of a transcontinental land passageway was a handicap that became obvious at the beginning of the gold rush itself. When the authenticity of the gold find was confirmed, it fell upon Lieutenant Loeser to bring the news to Washington. He had a letter and a small oyster-can filled with 200 ounces of gold dust in it as a proof. His orders were to deliver them as quickly as possible. Loeser left Monterey in August to catch a ship to Peru, where he changed to a second ship to Panama. After crossing the Panama isthmus on mules, he took a third ship to Jamaica, and a fourth one to New Orleans. From there, he got to Washington late November. The alternative route was the longer and dangerous passage around Cape Hope.
Therefore, in the absence of a land route, New York was practically 16,000 nautical miles away from California. But Acapulco and Honolulu were only 2,000 miles; Callao 4,000 miles; Valparaiso 6,000 miles; and Sydney and Canton 7,000 miles. Not surprisingly, the first waves of the argonauts came from Central America, Western Pacific, Australia and England.
Missing so far are the stories of the real actors of the gold rush, of the roughly 300,000 fortune seekers and adventurers - the "Forty- Niners". These were the men - but also some families, some even with small children - who trekked overland across the continent, from east to west, along barely explored trails to reach the gold mines in California.
Almost all of them crossed the Missouri river at Independence (MO), then moved on to Fort Kearney (NE) to proceed to Chimney Rock (NE), Scott’s Bluff (NE), Fort Laramie (WY) and finally to South Pass (WY). Beyond that, some took the safer, and known Oregon Trail. But it was a diversion towards north west. Those who were more impatient and adventurous, took the supposedly shorter routes due west – California Trail or Mormon Trail. Both crossed unknown terrain and passed through arid deserts.
Years later, when Samuel Clemens passed through the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Carson Desert, he wrote: “from one extremity of this desert to the other, the road was white with the bones of oxen and horses… the desert was one
prodigious graveyard…do not these relics suggest something of an idea of the fearful suffering and privation the early emigrants to California endured?”
For some, the gamble paid off – becoming unimaginably rich; for many it did not. Some did it with gold, some with coffee (Folger) or Jeans (Strauss). One Samuel Langhorne Clemens came from Missouri and invested in gold mines. He failed and took up writing to earn money. Clemens’s loss was literature’s gain because that's how we got Mark Twain. Neither of the two “Johns” became rich – so is life. And the third John became immensely rich, became the first presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party and then lost it all. Whatever they did, and however they ended, in the process they changed California, changed the country, and arguably the world.
It is all there in the book. Read the stories of adventurers Fremonts, entrepreneurs Leland Stanford, and Hearst, and the wry observer Samuel Clemens - side by side with prospectors, soldiers, and scoundrels. You'll enjoy it - I guarantee it
The 1787 constitutional convention, where slaves were agreed to be counted as 3/5 of a person.
The 1828 Missouri compromise, where Missouri was admitted to the United States as a slave state, and Maine as a free state, while prohibiting slavery north of the 36º30’ parallel.
The 1833 Nullification Compromise.
The four agreements of the 1850 California compromise:
1. CA would enter as a free state
2. Slave trade would be outlawed in D.C.
3. New territories would decide whether they would be a slave state or free state by using the system of popular
sovereignty, the people rule.
4. Congress would pass stronger laws to assist slave holders
Get a bracing, alternate view of the modern world history. Pankaj Mishra reverses the long gaze of the West upon the East and provides a worthy counterbalance to the Eurocentric view of the likes of Niall Ferguson.
Mishra does so by exploring the central event of the last century – the intellectual and political awakening of
Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. He chronicles the lives and deeds of a long list of Asian intellectuals that helped ignite and fan this awakening – an awakening that laid the foundation of anti-
colonialism. This list is long and pan-Asian: Rabindranath Tagore in India, Liang Qichao and Sun Yatsen in China, Abdurreshi al Ibrahim in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.
All of them had a pan-Asian outlook and spurned nationalism. The least known among them and probably the most influential was the enigmatic Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Born in the mid 19th century in Persia, he was a true cosmopolitan, studying and living in Afghanistan, India, Turkey, Egypt, Paris, London and Moscow. In his quest against western colonialism he advocated both nationalism and pan-Islamism; lamented intolerance of Islam; and evoked its great glories in the past. He asked Muslims to work with Hindus, Christians and Jews, and did so himself. Now that colonialism lies in the past, I’ll leave it up to you to decide how much of their ideals we have achieved.
This is my second Pankaj book; the other one being Age of Anger, which is equally commendable.
Benito Cereno by Herman Melville April, 2020
“The negro”, said Captain Benito gloomily - in response to Captain Delano’s puzzled question about what has cast a shadow over him now that he was saved. It was an odd response. By that time, Babo’s head, that “hive of subtlety”, was fixed on a pole in the plaza. Did he mean not just the black man, but metaphorically the basic evil in human nature? If so, then narrowly speaking, Herman Melville’s Benito Sereno is a powerful tale of human depravity, with Babo as the prime embodiment of evil.
But more convincingly, the novella is an indictment of slavery, done skillfully without going into the morality of slavery. It is also a powerful criticism of “benign” racism, adeptly reflected in the character of Captain Amasa Delano. This is what most Melville critics agree on today. There should be no doubt about Melville’s position on racism after you read his short paragraph on cannibalism* (in chapter XVII of Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, his first and most popular book).
This was my first Herman Melville book. I confess to have not read Moby Dick. Or should I say I was never made to? To atone, I had recently picked up two smaller books by Melville: Bartelby, The Scrivener; and Benito Cereno. I liked the latter one better; it is one of his masterpieces. Be prepared to read it twice – I think it is destined to be read twice. If you read, then you'll see what I mean.
On a side note, the story is an adaptation of an 1819 narrative by Captain Amasa Delano, an ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres). It is odd that right now I am watching a documentary series on the Roosevelts – both Theodor and Franklin. Two cousins of the same family, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, both championing the common man. What has happened to our politicians, to the political parties and to our democracy???
It will be urged that these shocking unprincipled wretches are cannibals. Very true; and a rather bad trait in their character it must be allowed. But they are such only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies; and I ask whether the mere eating of human flesh very far exceeds in barbarity that custom which only a few years since was practicedin enlightened England - convicted traitor, perhaps a man found guilty of honesty, patriotism, and such-like heinous crimes, had his head lopped off with a huge axe, his bowels dragged out and thrown into fire; while his body, carved into four quarters, was with his head exposed upon pikes, and permitted to rot and fester among the public haunts of men!
The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all manner of death dealing engines, the vindictiveness with which we carry on our wars, and the misery and desolation that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino January, 2020
A postmodernist book about reading, and about a reader trying in vain to finish reading a story only to realize that it is a story about stories. More accurately, you’ll read the incipits of ten stories whose titles added together become
“If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave – What story down
there awaits its end?"
Calvino is a master of incipit writing, as demonstrated in ten dazzling examples covering as many genres. As a simple reader, not versed in literary theories, this book makes me wish he had written ten complete books instead.
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote December, 2019
A book is always better than its movie version. That’s what I had thought, until my son Ilias pointed out that there are exceptions, Breakfast at Tiffany’s being one. I had not read/watched this iconic book/movie. Therefore, I did an experiment – I watched the movie first, then read the book. Lo and behold, he was right! The movie is indeed better.
I don't say this lightly (rhymes with Holly Golightly!) because I really like Truman Capote's books. Long
before having started this website I had read two of his best books - Other Voices, Other Rooms and In Cold Blood. The first one is a semi-autobiographical, coming of age, novel written as a twenty-three-year-old. It had propelled him to fame. And the latter one is a riveting, true crime story told in a fictional style. Its success had landed Capote on millions of American coffee tables and on every TV screen. BTW, an interesting tidbit is that tomboy Idabel in Other Voices, Other Rooms is an exaggeration of Capote’s childhood friend Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). In return, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee is said to have modeled Dill after Capote!
In the Breakfast at Tiffany’s movie, the screen writer had taken significant liberty, especially in how the story ends, giving it a romantic touch. The movie also addressed my fascination for American life in the fifties – much better than a book could. It was a time when, unlike today, there was a sense that things can and will get better. Movies, of course, sugarcoat the reality . . . but still. It did not hurt that Audrey Hepburn had played Holly Golightly, the eccentric country girl turned New York café society girl.
The book volume I had borrowed from the library also included three short stories: House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar, and A Christmas Memory. The last one is poignant, with an autobiographical touch.
I have now come a long way – from 1835 (Balzac) to 1904 (MacKinder) and now to 1950 (Capote). What’s next? We’ll find out soon.
Movie: This is the only case where I have found a movie to be much better than the book. This is also the only time I have watched a movie first, and then read the book. But whatever the reason, watch it, if you already haven't. You'll enjoy it!
Man initiates and causes history, but it is geography that largely controls it. That was the simple idea behind Halford Mackinder’s theory that he had presented to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904. It was a groundbreaking notion, and the basis of his Heartland Theory. For this, and for subsequent contributions, he is considered the founder of political geography. Today, his Heartland Theory is at the center of the most significant geopolitical changes around us.
According to Mackinder, a collection of people becomes a nation only after it unites to resist an external force. In his words, “the idea of England was beaten into Heptarchy only to resist Danish and Norman conquerors; the idea of France was forced upon competing Franks, Goths, and Roman by the Huns; the idea of the German Empire was reluctantly adopted in South Germany only after a struggle against France in comradeship with North Germany”.
In this nation building process, geography’s role is to influence who the external forces are. For Europe, these were the horse-riding nomads from the Eurasian steppe – whose invasions were made possible only because of the existence of a broad passageway between the southern tip of the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea. For a thousand years (from the fifth to the sixteenth century) the Huns, the Avars, the Bulgarians, the Magyars, the Khazars, the Patzniaks, the Cumans, the Mongols, and the Kalmuks have struck at the heart of Europe, and thereby shaped the history of each of the great European people – the Russian, the Germans, the French, the Italians. It was also geography that helped prevent the Asian invasions from becoming overwhelmingly crushing. The power and the mobility of the horse riders from the steppe became significantly curtailed when they entered the mountains and forests of Europe.
Mackinder’s genius lies in applying the insights from the past to anticipate the future. He recognized the enormous economic, political and strategic potential of Eurasia with its vast expanse. With 21,000,000 square miles, it is more than three times the area of North America. And it has great resources in population, minerals, fossil fuels, and agriculture. At the center of this region lies Heartland (interior Asia and eastern Europe), or the Pivot Region. It has the potential to expand over the marginal lands of Euro-Asia and become the Empire of the World.
Why then, hasn’t this happened yet? Because of geography. More specifically, because of the unusual drainage of the six greatest rivers in the region, especially in the center and the north. They either drain into salt lakes (the Volga, the Oxus or Amu Darya, and the Jaxartes or Syr Darya), or they drain into frozen ocean in the north (the Obi, the Yenisei and the Lena). In other words, they are practically useless for purposes of human communication with the outer world.
Mackinder, however, thought that this geographical hindrance can be overcome by an effective network of railways and roads. Here railways and roads may sound unlikely infrastructures for a world empire. Then throughout history, empires have been built on the maritime control of coastal areas (see more on this in the PS section). Ocean-going traffic is relatively cheap too. But Mackinder pointed out that while the continental railway truck may run directly from the exporting factory into the importing warehouse, the ocean-going traffic is burdened with a fourfold handling of goods: at the factory of origin, at the export wharf, at the import wharf, and at the inland warehouse for retail distribution.
As a result, and as technological advancement will have made such a huge, land-based infrastructure possible, all that would be missing for the creation of the Empire of the World would be the right political alignment. Here he didn’t shy away from naming names - “this might happen if Germany were to ally with Russia”.
Considering the insights, the bang for your buck for this only 24 pages long book is hard to beat.
PS: When Mackinder had proposed his Heartland theory, the maritime theory of the US naval officer Alfred Mahan was driving geopolitics. Global hegemony was understood to be all about naval supremacy. A country with a large modern navy could expand its coastal empires, dominate trade, develop a strong economy, and become a global hegemon. A traditional land power in contrast, with its mass armies marching across vast land masses, was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Accordingly, Germany embarked on a crash naval buildup to expand its colonial fiefdom, thereby challenging the British Empire’s maritime supremacy. Thus was the game board set, waiting for a spark, in the form of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to start the First World War.
The Second World War was of course an outgrowth of the first; but by this time, Mackinder’s opposing Heartland theory had gained relevance. German geopolitician Karl Haushofer supported the Nazi doctrine of world domination based on Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. This time, the Nazi Germany shifted its gaze eastward to the landmasses of Ukraine, Caucasus and Central Asia to create a Lebensraum necessary for an emergent, ambitious and, increasingly populated, power.
And after the war, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Mackinder argued forcefully to create a tier of independent states to separate Germany and Russia. Later in 1924, he published his prophetic theory of the Atlantic community (that became a reality after WW2) and assumed military form in the NATO. He dedicated his entire life to prevent the formation of a Eurasian Empire. Much later, Lord Ismay, the first secretary-general of NATO (1952-56) was blunt, when he explained that the purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Mackinder's legacy lives on long after his death. Today, the greatest geopolitical changes are being driven by Eurasian Integration. Call it Belt and Road Initiative, or call it New Silk Road, the resulting economic, political and strategic upheavals promise to be gigantic. Interestingly it is not a Russia-Germany alliance, that Mackinder and the west have sought to prevent, rather an alliance between Russia, China and a host of Asian countries that is awakening the Pivot Region. If I were a betting man then I'd wager that Germany will be joining the caravan sooner rather than later. These changes foreshadow a non-west centric empire of the future.
At this point, it becomes impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. What is the American Empire to do? Relinquish its global dominance to a geographically favored, emergent Eurasian Empire, or oppose it? Evidently the latter is the case. That, to some extent, explains our stirring the pot in West Asia, Middle East as well as increasing conflicts with China and Russia. But if Mackinder’s assumption holds true, that “man initiates and causes history, but it is geography that largely controls it”, then in the long run, the American Empire holds the weaker cards. Ideally, it would take Mackinder’s teaching to heart, and instead of trying to overpower Eurasian geography, it would take advantage of its own geography. It would build its own Western Silk Road from Cape Columbia in the north to Cape Horn in the south.
Such land based commercial alliances favor a more peaceful world. Why? Because unlike maritime trade, which may be controlled and imposed by a naval superpower, such extended overland trade can only prosper in peace. But considering human nature, I am not holding my breath.....
After two Balzac's in a row, this 1904 book was an attempt at reading something more contemporary. I can certainly understand if you are not impressed. But I can do better, as you'll see with the next book :)
PPS (Aug. 2020): The Eurasian integration is taking place in a breathtaking speed, thanks to Western hostility towards both China and Russia, as well as due to the complementary nature of the economy of the two countries in natural resources, manufacturing capacity, etc.). Equally important is the relative decline of the western hegemony and the budding emergence of a global multipolarity. Most remarkable is the evolving development of a bilateral relationship between China and Russia driven by a broader long term strategic vision for regional and continental cooperation and integration. Decent summary of recent development can be found here.
From Balzac to Balzac, because one good deed deserves another! This time, Balzac chooses passion as his theme; one of two of his frequent themes – passion and money. But there is a twist. The passion in question is the boundless love of a father for his two daughters, which drives him to financial ruin, and ultimately death. Irrational? But for Balzac passion is neither rational or irrational, let alone right or wrong. It is a force of nature.
Of course, in a Balzac plot, money and struggle for social dominance, cannot altogether be absent. In the social Darwinist society of Paris, in the post Bourbon restoration period, the ambitious Eugène, one of the protagonists, learns to use passion as a tool. Along the way he has to navigate his conscience and balance his way between the three options a society in general offers: Obedience, Struggle and Revolt. In that sense it is also a Bildungsroman.
The novel was published in 1835. Time for something more contemporary?
Balzac’s last great novel, and possibly his best – and my first Balzac ever. It is post Napoleon era of France in the 1830s and 1840s. The country is transitioning from mercantilism to industrial development, and the aristocracy is forced to relate socially and economically with the nouveau riche. This is a perfect backdrop for Balzac to explore the power of money and of human passion to shape personal lives, and the society at large. Balzac’s ability to portray a whole society and its momentum is said to be second only to that of Tolstoy (as in War in Peace).
Balzac wrote his longest novel in just two months. That is because he wanted to beat Eugene Sue at his own game of serial publication. At that time, Sue’s pot-boiling serials depicting lower-class sufferings was very popular. That was anathematic to Balzac’s world view of absolute monarchy and reimposition of the Catholic religion. He considered Sue’s work to be “socialist bastard literature”. The writing format may have been the reason for a repeated sense of going through short chapters that tended to end on a minor climax. He wanted the readers to look forward to the next publication.
This second fiction by Arundhati Roy comes 26 years after her much acclaimed first one (The God of Small Things - Booker prize, 1997). Not that she has been lazy or was inflicted by writer’s block. Rather her time, passion and energy during the intervening 2+ decades were spent on social and political activism. And that passion is all over this book, making it a curious beast. The story, or the many interconnected stories, is a patchwork of countless social, political, religious and cultural tensions that are pulling the Indian society
apart. India of course is just a more obvious exhibit of the world today.
The book is written in a style that is on the opposite end of fiction writing, as explained eloquently by Ursula Le Guin, another favorite author of mine. Le Guin asserts that an author’s wisdom lies in knowing how to make pots. What a reader gets out of her pot is what the reader needs, and the reader knows better than the author what he or she needs. But in defense of Roy’s style in this novel, one can point out the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago, especially his novel Raised from the Ground. In this excellent novel Saramago serves a pot that is filled with an unambiguously hearty stew, which no reader can confuse with a bland soup.
Pnin - by Vladimir Nabokov August, 2019
“Is that foreign gentleman on our staff?”, asks the perplexed, octogenarian and blind college president Poore - responding to assistant professor Timofey Pavlovich Pnin's bitter complaint that he has been “shot” by the administration. Pnin of course means that he has been fired. His struggle with the English language, even a decade after having emigrated to the States, is just one of many foibles that makes him likable to some, and ridiculous to others. But he is not quite der zerstreute Professor, nor the absent-
minded professor. It is world that is absent-minded, and it is America that is unpredictable. And it is Pnin’s business to set them straight.
Pnin’s character is said to be partially based on Nabokov himself teaching at Cornell University and Wellesley College, as well as other Russian émigré colleagues. Although not as widely read and known as Lolita, Pnin was the book that actually made Nabokov a well-known writer in the United States.
In some ways Pnin’s story brings to mind Stoner by John Williams. Both the similarities and the differences between the two protagonists are stunning. Stoner too, is a professor at a small college, where he teaches without distinction and is handicapped by his inability to comprehend academic conspiracies. That’s where the similarities end. Pnin is a St. Petersburg born Russian émigré, teaching Russian in the thriving German department at Waindell College, after having studied sociology and political economy in Prague and lived in France. Stoner in contrast, was born and raised in the Midwest and ends up teaching English at a Midwest university. After teaching for 40 years, he never progressed beyond assistant professorship. And when he dies, it was understood that his colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, would never speak of him later. With Pnin it is exactly the opposite. After he steals away from the college on being "shot", his memories are ridiculed by some to the extent that it borders on fatal obsession which substitutes its own victim for that of the initial ridicule.
PS: I started reading the book in German translation - a 26 year old copy we had brought with us when we emigrated from Germany. After struggling through paragraph-long sentences, that are so typical of German, I got an original, English version from the library. Imagine my surprise, when I found half-page long sentences throughout the book in English as well! To make matters worse, right on the book jacket, John Updike extolls: “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” There goes my understanding of English composition! But once I got used to the long sentences, I loved the book.
The Maltese Falcon - by Dashiell Hammett July, 2019
If you like your detective hard boiled, then take the one cooked up by the dean of the genre. Dashiell Hammett serves up private eye Sam Spade’s exploits in San Francisco. Enjoy how the “blond satan” escapes the web of intrigues extending all the way from Constantinople and Hong Kong, and woven by imposters, some alluring and some dangerous. Need I mention that Humphry Bogart played Sam Spade in its most popular film adaptation?
I knew about Dashiell Hammett as a writer of detective novels and short stories. But did not know about his left leaning, antiwar political activism that had brought him the honor of imprisonment as well as being blacklisted under McCarthyism. He was a veteran of two world wars as well.
Get ready for a one-way journey to Dystopia. That’s where the genie is taking us – the genie we have created and let lose. This is my take-home message from this book, even though the author tries to leave some hope. In spite of this disagreement, this is an excellent book.
The genie in question is Artificial Intelligence (AI), and it is growing in big strides in two global centers of excellence - Silicon Valley and China. Its impact on the humanity will be massive – sadly, not all for the
good. The remedies the author suggests do not convince me. Nevertheless, the nature of these suggestions is interesting.
Over the last four decades the author has been an AI researcher, a business executive, a venture capitalist, an author, and a cancer survivor. He had led AI research and development at SGI, Apple and Microsoft, and was the president of Google China. Today, he is the founder, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital company, with presence in both China and Silicon Valley, that focuses on next generation high-tech Chinese companies.
China’s sophistication in AI came to me as a surprise. Apparently, there was a “Sputnik moment” in China’s journey to AI. That came on an afternoon in May of 2017. On that day, the reigning world champion Ke Jay played and lost a game of Go against AlphaGo. Go is a nineteen-by-nineteen-line board game, invented more than 2,500 years ago, with deceptively simple rules. The rules can be laid out in just nine lines, and yet, the number of possible positions on a Go board exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe! This is too big a problem to tackle with brute computing power alone (as was done by Deep Blue to unseat chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997). To win, AlphaGo had to resort to AI. While this event was barely noticed in America and the west, it had galvanized the Chinese society and its technology community. In less than two months after Ke Jay’s defeat, the Chinese central government issued an ambitious plan to build AI.
Today, China has a significant advantage in shaping AI’s future. The author explains this by drawing analogy to how the power of electricity was harnessed. For that to have succeeded, four key inputs were necessary: abundant fossil fuel (to generate electricity), entrepreneurs (to build new business around it), electrical engineers and tinkerers (to come up with new applications), and a supportive government (to develop the underlying public infrastructures). The four analogous inputs for AI are: data, entrepreneurs, AI scientists, and an AI-friendly policy environment. China has a decided leg up in all four. How so?
China is data rich. China's Internet users, larger than those of US and western Europe combined, have leapfrogged to mobile technology and have been using cheap and ubiquitous mobile phones for all sorts of transactions. The Chinese have also spearheaded O2O platform (online to offline) that seamlessly integrates the online world with the offline world, thereby creating extremely rich data. As a result, China has access to data that is superior to those in any other country – both qualitatively and quantitatively. Data is the fuel that powers AI, and China is the Saudi Arabia of data - posits the author.
Then consider the Chinese entrepreneurs. The cutthroat and opportunistic environment in China has produced entrepreneurs that the author calls Gladiator Entrepreneurs. They are in no way inferior to those in Silicon Valley. If anything, they are hungrier and harder working. When a decade ago Chinese Internet entrepreneurs took baby steps by shamelessly copying Silicon Valley, the most valuable output from this copycat era wasn’t a product at all – it was the entrepreneurs themselves. Today, Chinese BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) is as formidable as Silicon Valley’s GAF (Google, Apple and Facebook).
The third input is AI scientists. China does lag behind the US in the cutting-edge AI technology. US has absolutely the world’s best AI scientists, research centers and universities. But in today’s connected world, Chinese AI entrepreneurs jokingly say that they lag behind just by “sixteen hours”. But more importantly, AI has already moved on from discovery to implementation - from the age of expertise to the age of data. In this phase, a vast army of “good enough” AI scientists is more important than a few leading researchers.
And finally, government policy. Ever since China’s AI Sputnik moment, the Chinese government has poured massive amounts of money to create thousands of technology incubators, entrepreneurship zones and government-backed venture funds. This brute force attempt to create “mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation” has paid off handsomely, in spite of the many local failures and inefficiencies. Add to that China’s generally permissive data sharing policies. That, in a nutshell, is advantage China.
The many insightful comparisons between the Chinese and the Silicon Valley AI ecosystem may lead you to believe that this book is about who will win the AI race. But then you'll have missed the forest for the trees. The question we should be asking is how AI will impact our future. The unanimous answer is - fundamentally and completely. That’s because everything humans do today in business, commerce, service and industry can be done better and more efficiently by AI, whether these are blue- or white-collar jobs. Jobs that will disappear include accountants, truck and taxi drivers, paralegals, radiologists, physicians, stock analysts, warehouse operators, etc. just to give some examples. And that’s where the agreement ends and three schools of thought emerge.
For the first school, AI is just another new technology, that will eliminate jobs but will also create many new jobs, like all previous technologies. The second school looks at AI as a blessing and a harbinger of utopia. AI will help eliminate all human sufferings and limitations. In fact, by freeing the human race from the tedious chores of earning a living, AI will finally allow us all to pursue our true interests and passions. In contrast, the third school views our future in a diametrically opposite way, and fears dystopia.
The first school fails to recognize that AI is not just another new technology, but one of a handful GTPs (general purpose technology) that humans have ever created - but with a twist. Examples of GPTs include steam engine, electricity and computer/Internet. GPTs “deskill” a vast number of jobs (for example, by making farmers and artisans to lower skill assembly line workers), while creating many highly skilled new jobs. The twist is that AI, by definition, outperforms highly skilled professions. Therefore, it will “deskill” a huge number of jobs (in fact eliminate them with AI powered robots) without creating highly skilled, new jobs.
The second school gets it wrong in a different way. AI will make billions of people unemployed and unemployable. At the same time, the productivity of a handful of AI enterprises will skyrocket, making just a few AI tycoons astronomically rich. This is because AI economy creates a self-perpetuating cycle: success generates more and better quality data, which in turn, fuels more success. This holds true both for individual enterprises as well as nations. The result will be a level of global inequality in income, wealth and opportunities that we cannot even fathom and that will tear apart the very fabric of the human society globally. If you are queasy about income inequality today, then you ain’t seen nothing. This is a dystopian view, a view shared by the third school to which the author belongs.
After predicting dystopia, the author proposes several policy measures to avert the oncoming wrecking train. I am not convinced. Not that they lack merit. My skepticism is grounded on my assessment of the human nature. I won’t list the suggestions here - you can read them up in the book. What is astounding though, is that all suggestions by this dyed-in-the-wool capitalist (and a venture capitalist to boot) boil down to redistribution of wealth, and socialism - even though he doesn’t label them as such.
His unlikely metamorphosis came about when he had to face his mortality after being diagnosed with stage four cancer. He says that instead of spending most of his life trying to understand "how the human mind works" (his statement of purpose on his graduate school application for a Ph.D. in AI), now he wishes that he had spent more time to understand "how human love works". This stunning confession also explains why his very laudable suggestions will not work - I know of no practical means of diagnosing the entire humanity with stage four cancer.
To sum it up, AI is coming, and as the late cosmologist Stephen Hawkins - arguably one of the most intelligent human beings ever born - has warned, AI is the biggest risk we face as a civilization. As for me, it gives me no pleasure to conclude that when intelligence is pitted against stupidity, then my bet is always on the former. It makes no difference if the former is artificial and the latter of the natural, collective kind.
PS: One deficiency of this excellent book is its failure to even mention an area where AI will have a devastating impact. That area is its ability to manipulate human thinking and opinion - and ultimately human behavior. This tremendous power will be wielded by a tiny minority of the winning (private) enterprises and governments. Even today, with the relatively crude tools of monopoly, vast numbers of Americans, including very intelligent ones, have been led to believe in "Russian collusion" in the 2016 presidential election (just 6 mega corporations control 90% of US media today vs. more than 50 companies back in 1983). Thanks to AI, and in a not too distant future, even more people will be led to believe in things that do not exist and led to act in ways that do not represent their interests. On the flip side, one day, the manipulation may be so complete that the vast majority of the human species will live in a Matrix, untethered from the reality, but happy!
PPS: One might think that the nature of AI's impact on our future will fundamentally depend on whether communist China or capitalist Silicon Valley wins the race. But I think that is a distinction without a difference (at least for this particular discussion). In China, the government controls the enterprises, whereas in the US, enterprises control the government. The two systems come from diametrically opposite directions but are approaching the same end state where enterprises and government may still have distinct external appearances but, behind the scenes, act symbiotically at the very least.
After The Long Goodbye, it had to be The Big Sleep. The first book was Chandler’s most personal novel, and the latter book was the first one to feature Philip Marlowe. The plot is rather convoluted and ends with some loose ends. That’s typical Chandler, due to his practice of “cannibalizing” existing short stories to write a novel. But it is also his style. Instead of neatly tying up every plot thread, as had been the style for previous crime fiction writers, it’s all about atmosphere and description of people and places. That’s exactly what I liked best about this book – being transported to the big city LA in the 1930’s.
Turns out that The Big Sleep was adapted for film twice. I could have bet that Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe, and I would have been right! The Philip Marlowe character has Bogart written all over it – a hard boiled, wisecracking, hard-drinking, tough private eye, who is irresistible to women but can always keep his cool. Given a choice, I always prefer to read a book instead of watching the movie. But in this case, I might make an exception. Actually right now, I am in the mood for a Bogart/Bacall flick!
The spell was broken. I finally read my first fantasy book, ever. Even the Harry Potter series had left me cold. To this day, I haven’t read a single Harry Potter. What changed my mind? Technically, a recommendation by the Art of Living Meetup group. In reality though, it was my admiration for the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, whose two books I had read recently - a SciFi and a collection of book reviews.
With this fantasy book for young adults, written in 1968, Le Guin had broken two conventions of the genre.
One overtly – the epic battles are not fought between clans, creeds or nations. The other covertly – the protagonists are brown and dark skinned.
It is the story of Ged, a young lad from a village on the island of Gont in the archipelago of Earthsea, who will become the dragonlord and Archmage. His display of magical powers brought him to the school of wizardry while still a boy. He is talented, he is ambitious. But he is also a diamond in the rough. So he has to take a journey, out of which he must emerge as the polished diamond that will make him worthy of the high office his destiny will lead him to.
Central to this journey is his fight against the “shadow”, a vague and ominous force he had unwittingly unleashed from the bowels of the underworld through false pride. This battle tests him to the core of his being, driving him from island to island, in fright and flight. Only after he musters the courage to confront the “shadow” and follows him to the end of the known world, beyond the far east Island of Astowell and into the unknown seas, and conquers the “shadow”, that Ged becomes worthy of his destiny.
In the final act of the battle, when Ged defeats his enemy, he doesn’t kill or destroy the “shadow”. Instead, he meets it face to face, addresses it with his own name, and embraces it. So, "light and darkness met, and joined, and were one”. Ged’s epic battle, therefore, was not against an external evil, rather an internal one against one’s own fears, limitations, and even darkness within, from which no one is immune. It is only when Ged, instead of fleeing, summons the courage to confront this nebulous and menacing enemy, and ultimately embraces and overpowers it, that he reaches his potential. Without winning this battle, there is no true growing up, let alone achieving greatness.
P.S.: With this story, Le Guin had introduced the concepts of a “wizard school”, a “boy wizard” and an “enemy with whom the wizard boy has a close connection”, long before Harry Potter books were written. J. K. Rowling has never acknowledged this. To Le Guin’s credit, she never accused J.K. Rowling of “rip off”, but thought that Rowling “could have been more gracious about her predecessors”. That increases my admiration for Le Guin even more!
Peace be Upon You - by Zachary Karabell May, 2019
It was on display at the local library, but I had no desire to borrow the book. Who wants to read about eternal hostility and mayhem between the three religions? Haven’t they brought enough misery? Aren't we already on the verge of a “Clash of the Religions” with disastrous consequences? But somehow I did borrow the book. It remained on my nightstand for several weeks before I even opened it.
Now that I have read the book, I am thankful for having done so. I have learned how Jews, Christians and
Muslims have really lived and dealt with each other over many centuries. And that has completely changed my view on the relationship between the three Religions of the Book - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For one thing, and in spite of the feud throughout history, there were also long stretches of time when people of the three religions have lived in peaceful coexistence. One example is the the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad ruling over a majority population of Christians and Jews. For more than two centuries, there was a period of toleration, fruitful dialog and collaboration. Many non-Arabs, and even non-Muslims, held high administrative posts in government and bureaucracies. During this time, Muslim scholars studied the wisdom of the society they were ruling, and liberally borrowed and incorporated their ideas and practices. A fair number of these drew on the pre-Islamic traditions of Christians, Jews and Persians. It was during these two centuries, that the four major Muslim schools of law had emerged. These laws answer thousands of questions about how a Muslim should act and behave. And then, there were state-sponsored translations of Greek knowledge into Arabic. These translations eventually paved the way for the transmission of classical knowledge into Western Europe.
Another example was Cordoba in the 9th century. For 150 years Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace together, creating a city so beautiful and so refined that it became known as the “ornament of the world”. Cordoba excelled in commerce, learning and wealth, and grew to be larger than Paris, London, and Rome combined. The exotic Moorish architecture in Andalusia, of which Alhambra in Granada is a dazzling example, bears witness to a time of peaceful coexistence.
But even outside of these impressive examples, there were times when people of the three religions lived uneventfully side by side. Yes, there were skirmishes against some adversary, but there were also long periods of quiet. These quiet times get overlooked because popular histories of the Crusades, in both the West and the Muslim world, focus exclusively on the conflict. This is a general problem of history writing until the second half of the twentieth century. Until then, few historians wasted time on farming, trade, immigration, domestic life, and the humdrum aspects of getting through the day. This has created a biased perception of the frequency of war, revolution, mayhem, and changes in government. We remember the fighting, but not the peace. This is not unlike remembering only the many inevitable, sometimes serious, conflicts in a long marriage, while ignoring the protracted stretches of harmony.
Another interesting point the author makes about Crusades and Holy Wars is that it has always taken some effort to get men to kill one another, and shouting Holy War was one way to easily motivate soldiers. He argues that religious wars were more often a tactic rather than strategy.
Take for example, the Third Crusade. That was the Crusade where Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip Augustus of France, and Fredrick Barbarossa of Germany had fought against Saladin. But when Barbarossa died, causing the Germans to fall in disarray, and Philip Augustus returned to France due to illness, it was left to Richard the Lionheart to challenge Saladin alone. Richard too was weary of his brother back home contesting his throne. So, it was proposed that Richard’s sister Joanna of Sicily would marry Saladin’s brother Sayf ad-Din, and the two would become joint monarchs ruling from Jerusalem. Although it did not turn out that way, it just shows the weakness of viewing historical conflicts narrowly through one lens - that of religion only. And then consider that the Fourth Crusade was waged by Western Christians, comprising Frankish and Roman nobles, against Eastern Christians in Byzantine. Similarly, throughout those centuries, Muslims have fought countless battles among themselves.
Indeed, the very notion of just one ideology dominating all aspects of life is an oversimplification. This is true not only for religion, but also for many other issues, such as race, ethnicity, etc., that supposedly drive conflicts. These issues are not unimportant, but they are just parts of a complex kaleidoscope of human motivations.
The author ends the book with another interesting observation. For a very long stretch of time - from the 7th to the 19th century - Muslim rule had dominated the world. That was also the time of tolerance and (relatively) peaceful coexistence. But after the fall of the Ottoman empire, and with the rise of the Christian West, conflicts seem to have increased. But even today, and if one looks carefully, there are many examples of peaceful coexistence - and the author points out a few.
P.S.: Fast forward today and open your eyes to the ongoing “Clash of the Religions”. “Christian” USA is in bed with “Jewish” Israel, together with a fleeting bunch of “Muslim” Gulf States to fight a “Muslim” Iran. And a “Muslim” ISIS, sponsored by the aforementioned “Christian/Jewish/Muslim” trio, is fighting against “Muslim” Syria to overthrow a country, in which Muslims, non-Muslims and Christians had been living in relative tranquility. Oh BTW, "Orthodox Christian" Russia is fighting along with "Muslim" Syria and "Muslim" Iran against "Muslim" ISIS! Another prime example is Palestine. It is not a religious conflict but a colonial conflict where both Muslim and Christian natives are being displaced by mostly European settlers. Centuries back, as today, in many supposedly religious wars, religion is more often a tactic than strategy.
Based on my experience of having lived in multiple cultures and countries, I am convinced that God, in his immeasurable kindness, has created all human beings very similarly. If not interfered with from the outside, the vast majority of them want to live in peace, take care of their family and children, and mind their own business. Unfortunately though, God in his unfathomable mystery, has been frugal in dispensing critical thinking ability to humans. But at least he has distributed this deficiency equally and universally among all cultures, races, ethnicity .... and surprisingly even among all levels of education and intellect! Is it any wonder that religion has always been and continues to be one of the most effective hot buttons for motivating people to kill each other?
I am as skeptical of the "Clash of the Regions" as I am of the "Clash of the Civilizations" (see "Age of Anger - a History of the Present" by Pankaj Mishra).
Words Are My Matter - by Ursula Le Guin May, 2019
My first encounter with the author was through her science fiction novel "The Left Hand of Darkness". That was a while ago. What remains memorable is not the story but the preface to the story. That’s where, for the first time, I understood what is and what isn’t Sci-Fi. She shattered two of my assumptions about Sci-Fi – that it is about the future and that it is predictive.
First, the temporal setting. The most essential part of a Sci-Fi is that it plays out in an imaginary
environment where actions and behaviors are guided by a set of logical rules that are very different than ours. It is convenient to set up a Sci-Fi in the future, but it can equally well take place in the present time – for example, in a parallel universe. BTW, the logical part is important, because otherwise it would fall in the genre of phantasy or fairytale.
As for prediction, she bluntly suggests that anyone interested in predictions should consult prophets, clairvoyants and futurologists, rather than Sci-Fi. Although extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game (which is good because almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing). Instead, Sci-Fi writers, like all fiction writers, are in the business of lying. They “invent persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist … and when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, “There! That’s the truth”.“
And now in this book, “Words Are My Matter”, I again learned something amazing. Le Guin provides the most helpful description of something, the essence of which I continue to fail to appreciate. It is poetry. She writes, “words sung to a tune make a song; when the words are the tune, you have a poem.” Wow! Why hasn’t anyone told me this before?
The other revelation about writing she makes is that she (others too?) doesn’t put any truth in her writings; she finds them as she writes. “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do. My only wisdom is knowing how to make pots. Who am I to preach?”
But the real reason, why I had picked this book is her review of books – both new and older ones. Now I have an excellent list of books to choose from for reading!
Norse Mythology - by Neil Gaiman April, 2019
Odin, the one-eyed, all-knowing god ruling Valhalla; Thor, his hammer yielding son; Loki, Odin’s blood brother - handsome and shrewd, and son of a giant who brings tragedy to the gods, leading to Ragnarok – the end of time when “the sun will vanish, as if eaten by a wolf, … darkness will fill the air, like ashes, … there will be the time of the terrible winter…, the Fimbulwinter …. winter followed by winter …. the mountains will shake and tremble