Wednesday, November 23, 2011

And a Bottle of Rum

On this the Eve of the Annual Celebration of Giving Thanks, it seems Most Appropriate to Mark this Happy Occasion by Offering Up to One and All an Item of Note for Which Your Humble Narrator is Quite Appreciative.  It is Tradition at this Time to begin with a Catalogue of all the Many Blessings which have been Bestowed upon the List-Maker, allowing all those with Earshot  (or in the case of the Printed Word, Eyeshot) to Nod Approvingly at the Effusion of Appropriate Sentiments expressed about Pleasant Things.  Ah, but the Patient Reader notes: said tradition is not actually a tradition for Thanksgiving Eve, but rather for the Day Itself, and so, to the Patient Reader, Your Humble Narrator would seem to be out of Season (but not, it is worthwhile to note, Out of Sorts).  But, Fear Not Patient Reader, Your Humble Narrator will compensate for the ill-timing of this expression of Thanks by bestowing appreciation on an object for which, Your Humble Narrator daresays, few others will think to Give Thanks at this Most Thankful Time of Year.

For what is Your Humble Narrator Thankful?  Pirates.

Well, OK, not really pirates (note: this abrupt change in the tone of the writing is not accidental).  Rather a book about Pirates.  And why am I thankful for a book about Pirates.  Well, it’s not just any book, but a book of particular beauty and charm:
The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, by Peter Leeson
And, why, am I thankful for this book?  Well, because I assigned it in one of my classes, and it is a really fun book, so I suspect that at least a subset of the students in the course (the geeks) will have greatly enjoyed the book.

The book is every bit as geeky as the title would suggest.  And if you are a geek, you have already left this blog space and bought a copy at Amazon.  If you aren’t a geek—well, I feel sorry for you.

I learned a lot about pirates in this book.  A lot.  Who knew that Pirate Society was so well organized?  Far from the bloodthirsty savages beloved by Hollywood and children’s fiction, pirates, it turns out, rivaled modern businesses for their sophistication in structuring their activities to maximize profits.  From the Jolly Roger to conscription to the Pirate Code to the use of torture to the way a captain was selected, everything about life on a Pirate Ship was strikingly rational, well-planned and designed to help revenues exceed costs by as large a margin as possible.  As noted above—this is an odd book to review.  Either you already want to read it or you think the whole thing sounds ridiculously childish and absurd.  I can’t think of anything I could say at this point which would influence either type of reader in the least.

So, I’ll add:  I really liked the book.  (Yeah, OK, Dante was a better writer than Leeson, but if we start using that criterion, then what book would we ever read?  (OK, you are right, we’d read The Divine Comedy and the best of Shakespeare, but what else would we ever read?))

Friday, November 18, 2011

Freedom Betrayed

As I have noted in this space before, I generally take the opportunity of long plane rides to read long books which I feel like I should probably read but whose length deters me from ever starting them.  One of the few nice things about flying is that there isn’t much to do except read while on a plane.  I like that part of flying.

So, faced with a long trip to and from California last weekend, I needed a book.  One arrived hand-delivered shortly before I left, so I figured the trip was a great opportunity to read it.

Herbert Hoover (you may have heard of him) lived a long time after he was President.  Little known fact—he wrote a lot of books in his later years.  One book, his self-labeled magnum opus, occupied 20 years of his life. That alone is pretty staggering—he spent 20 years writing this book.  He came close to finishing it shortly before he died.  And…it was never published.  Until now.  Why?  One might think it is because the book was on a topic which was not particularly interesting.  One would be wrong for thinking such a thing.  The topic?  Hoover’s history of the Second World War, containing an impressive condemnation of just about everything FDR did before and during the war, and just about everything Truman did during and after the war.  The book is not without some historical interest.

What happened?  We don’t know.  What we do know is that not too long ago, the Hoover Institute which had the secret manuscript nobody was ever allowed to see, contacted George Nash, a Hoover biographer (or probably more properly the Hoover biographer (though he is too modest to claim such an honorific himself)), and asked him if he would edit the manuscript for publication.  As it turns out, editing this manuscript was no small feat.  The book is long—really, really long.  And there are multiple drafts of this very long book.  And there are handwritten notes scribbled in the margins of the drafts.  And there are footnotes in the book which are incomplete.  And…well, suffice it to say, it was a lot of work to edit this book. 

The book was published last week.   Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath.  I took it on the plane to California.  And I read it.  All of it:  909 pages, plus the 88 page Editor’s Introduction.

Should you read it?  Well, since George is a friend of mine, and in fact gave me my copy of the book, part of me wants to say that everyone should rush out and buy a copy and read it.  But, honesty (a virtue in blogging to be sure) compels me to say that this book is not for everyone. 

The book is certainly of stunning historical interest.  And there are parts of it that will be fascinating to anyone interested in World War II or FDR or Truman or the Cold War.  But, in a 909 page book, there are also parts which will be of interest to precisely nobody.  I will do my best to convince George to convince the Hoover Press to publish a condensed version, containing not only the best parts of this book, but all the really juicy anti-FDR passages Hoover decided were just too harsh to include in the revised versions.  That next book would merit a very large readership.  This book merits reading if you are interested in the era.  (It would also make an excellent Christmas gift for the World War II buff on your list.)

So, what’s worth reading?  George’s introduction is, as anyone who has ever read anything he ever wrote will know, a masterpiece of scholarship.  One of the nice things about everything George writes is that if he writes it, you can be certain it is meticulously researched and as close to Truth as it is possible to be this side of Paradise.  (That’s no exaggeration, by the way—ask anyone who has ever read anything he ever wrote and you will hear the same thing.)  Also worth reading is the set of 28 documents in the appendix—these are all things related to the publication of the book (e.g. earlier drafts or letters to and from assorted people).  The Appendix is the starting point for the much desired condensed version.

What of the book as a whole?  Unfortunately for the general reader, the best parts aren’t all lumped together in one place.  The book is a constant mix of tedium interrupted by really thought-provoking arguments or stories or facts.  For the most part, the interesting stuff shows up often enough to keep the narrative flow lively.  The section in which Hoover begins to document the endless array of conferences of the major powers nearly had me toss aside the book, but Hoover’s indignation at the conference in Tehran revived the story.  If you want a selection to read in order to get a flavor of the whole book, I’d suggest the Case History of Poland.  (Volume 3 of the work is case histories of Poland, China, Korea and Germany—all four are interesting in their own ways, but the one on Poland gives a good feel for the rest of the book.)

The thesis of the book:  There were mistakes made—lots and lots of mistakes.  Hoover listed them in an earlier draft (included as an appendix in this book, but oddly deleted from the final version of the manuscript).  Hoover lists 19 mistakes made in seven years—which is a pretty remarkable record if you agree with Hoover than all of these are mistakes.  They are:
1. The World Economic Conference of 1933
2. The Recognition of Communist Russia in 1933
3. Munich
4. The British-French Guarantee of Poland and Rumania in 1939
5. United States Undeclared War
6. Failure in Watchful Waiting
7. Alliance with Stalin
8. The Economic Sanctions on Japan in July, 1941
9. Refusal to Accept Konoye’s Peace Proposals
10. Refusal to Accept a 3 Months’ Stand-Still Agreement with Japan
11. The Demand for Unconditional Surrender
12. The Sacrifice of the Baltic States and East Poland at Moscow, October 1943
13. Tehran and Its Sacrifice of Seven More Nations
14. Yalta—the Secret Agreements on the Downfall of Nations
15. Refusal of Japanese Peace Proposals on May-July, 1945
16. Potsdam
17. Dropping the Atomic Bomb
18. Giving China to Mao Tse-Tung
19. The Dragon’s Teeth of World War III
(You can read the document explaining the items on that list here if you are curious.  (Actually, come to think of it, you can read it there even if you aren’t curious.))

All in all, the book is pretty interesting revisionist history.  FDR comes across as particularly feckless, but I already thought that about him.  More surprising is that Churchill also comes off pretty poorly.  In large part, though, Churchill’s portrayal is a mix of the fact that Churchill did agree to sell out Eastern Europe and Hoover’s insistence that appeasing Germany would have been the best option before the War.  Only the first one of those is, I think, a legitimate criticism of Churchill.  Hoover is convinced that Hitler had no designs on Western Europe, that he and Stalin would have engaged in a process of mutual destruction if only the West had stayed out of the way, and that Japan was never really all that imperialistic.  I wasn’t persuaded, but Hoover made a good attempt to convince everyone of those counterfactuals.  Honestly, I was surprised that the case could be made so well, even if in the end I wasn’t convinced. 

I’m glad I read this book; it made me think.  But, I also am pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it all the way through if I wasn’t reading it on a plane.  That’s unfortunate—there are many things in here that deserve a wider readership than they will get.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

“And some there be which have no memorial; who perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.”

While the book under consideration today is entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it is this latter passage from the poem which is the relevant one.

Great Book.  That’s the quick summary.  

Written by James Agee, the photographs by Walker Evans are equally important.  The importance of the photographs intrigues me—I did not imagine how large they would loom in the work as a whole.  They are printed up front, with no captions, and yet they constitute a haunting refrain throughout the book.  While reading, it is impossible not to constantly be flipping back to the photographs to stare at them a little bit longer.

The project which begat the book was a trip Agee and Walker took in the 1930s to the rural South to write a story about the Southern poor.  The result is a book like nothing I have ever read.  Agee’s prose is…well, throughout the book it is everything from straightforward to hopelessly convoluted, from clean prose narrative to passages of exquisite poetic beauty.  The content of the book is roughly the examination of the families of three (related) tenant farmers in the South.  But, that description does not really tell you anything about the book.

Here is the central problem.  Suppose someone was to write a book about you, and in that book, your soul would be ripped open and put down on the page.  The author will put everything about you in that book.  What would he write?  And when we think about that, we start with imagining a biography telling where you lived and how many siblings you had and all sorts of other safe things.  But, instead, imagine the book started with a detailed description of the place where you live.  How much of your life is going to be exposed by describing the consents of your desk, and the state of your chairs, and the artwork on your walls—both the art itself and its location on the wall—and so on?  We will learn all sorts of things about you, things you might never get around to telling us, but things which capture the essence of a person much better than a narrative description of biographical information.  Suppose the book goes on to describe the way you eat or meet strangers or the details of your financial life.  And now ask yourself the question:  would such a book be an invasive violation of your privacy?  If you agreed to have a book written about you, and the author discovers things about you by paying attention to details you did not know you were providing, then is the resulting book fundamentally immoral?

On top of the questions of whether it is even right to compose this book—a question, which Agee agonizes over during the course of the book—there is the further intriguing question:  Are the lives of these people important?  Reading Agee’s minute descriptions of a house or clothing, the reader gets to know these people in an intimate way.  Do these people matter?  Well, sure, they matter because they are human and humans matter.  But, do they really matter?  Should we actually care about these people?   

And, strangely, I did.  There is absolutely no reason I should think this book is interesting.  It’s about poor people who are now dead.  And yet, Agee and Walker have crafted a book where the essential humanity of these people is present.  I know almost none of the things about these people that I know about the people with whom I daily interact, and yet, by the end of this book, I have glimpsed their souls, I have a seen their essence.  And that essence is important, vitally important.

This relates to what I have long thought of as the grocery store clerk problem.  I hate standing in line at the grocery store listening to the mindless prattle of a grocery store clerk.  I simply don’t care.  I have long been troubled by this fact about myself.  It is, indeed, one of my greatest moral failings.  And yet, try as I might, I have a very hard time listening to a clerk in a grocery store and caring.  This book has given me the beginning of the solution to the problem.  Most of what we meet when we meet people is not the person itself.  We meet some vaguely superficial mask of a person.  And those masks of people are, to be honest, not very interesting.  For a grocery store clerk, that is the only thing you meet—and even the superficial mask isn’t their real mask, it is some vaguely professionalized version of the way they present themselves to get through a rather tedious job.  When I worked at the drugstore in high school, I had just such a mask myself.  It’s not the person who is boring, then, its the mask which does not interest me.

But, then if I imagine being able to sit down and talk, really talk, to that same grocery store clerk,  I realized I would be very interested in that conversation.  A conversation which penetrated beyond the mask is inherently fascinating.  People’s souls matter.  People’s souls are interesting.

We read this book for my tutorial this week.  And I was reminded that one of the reasons I find these tutorials so fascinating is that the discussion are always about things that matter.  Over the course of the tutorial, I get to know the people in the tutorial—get to know them not as simply students on a roster, but as people.  I learn a lot from those conversations, but mostly because we talk about all sorts of questions which one simply does not ask at a cocktail party or in line at a grocery store.  In conversations like that you learn about people not just from what they say, but what they don’t say and the way in which they say or don’t say it.  Ideas get triggered by stray remarks, which seem like extraneous afterthoughts to the person saying them, but end up being a key to deeper insights and Truth.  People, real people, not the plastic exterior we all wear every day are intrinsically fascinating.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the most ambitious attempt I have ever read to rip through all the exterior, to bypass all the sorts of things we normally ask people about themselves, to grope towards the deeply wonderful person.  I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.”   I have a new insight into that verse after reading this book.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jamming Good with Weird and Gilly

1. Last night, I returned from a weekend trek to Southern California.  There is something particularly relaxing about spending time in the general area where one grew up.  California is so thoroughly…normal-feeling.

2. The occasion of Heading West:  Janet’s grandmother’s 100th birthday party.  First time I have ever met anyone who was 100.  She looked good.  And, it’s still fun to talk to her.  (She likes Romney for President, by the way.)

3. Flying is a drag—but you already knew that.

4. Last weekend, I went to see the Met’s production of Siegfried, the third part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  I think it is time to stop even pretending to review these Met productions.  Stunning.  Simply Stunning.  The Ring Cycle ends early next year.  I can’t wait to see it.

5. Reviewing the plot of the opera itself is a bit of a challenge in the other way.  The story line in Wagner is hardly the point.  Siegfried, a young impetuous hero gradually matures, captures the Ring, and rescues the Girl.  The Gods decline; Humans rise.  Makes for a happy story line if you are a human. 

6. This morning, I gave a talk to the South Hadley/Granby Chamber of Commerce—the annual State of the Economy talk.  The talk seemed to go well, but quite honestly, I was pretty tired—I got in last night at 11 pm, but since I was on California time, I didn’t get to sleep until close to 1 AM.  Giving a breakfast talk at 8AM was a little rough.  I have class and my tutorial still later today.  And then I have a talk to attend at 7.  I suspect I will sleep well tonight.

7.  And, at this point, the Patient Reader is begin to wonder if this post will ever wander onto something, you know, interesting.  Your Humble Narrator s wondering the same thing. 

8. (Speaking of Your Humble Narrator—someone living in Trabuco Canyon, California did a Google search for “humble christmas card letter” and arrived at this blog. Turns out my blog is the #2 hit on Google if you search for that phrase.  Now why anyone would search for that phrase is a genuine mystery.)

9. And now for something completely different: A book review.  Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty is simultaneously one of the better books on the new economic thinking about poverty and a good illustration of the problems with books of this type.  The author’s are at the forefront of the new move to think about economic development on the small scale.  No grand projects here—rather, the idea is to figure out how to make things better for people, one family at a time.  For example, if you can get a small retail merchant to save just a little bit for a month, then by using that savings to reduce their debt burden bit by bit, the poor person can get a dramatically improved standard of living in a short time.  So, why is it so hard to do these things?   That is what the authors study—what are all the small scale frictions which stop poor people from doing easily done things which will make a huge difference in their lives.  A host of policy ideas and suggestions later, you have this book.  So, what’s the limitation?  The book, like all this genre, sprawls.  Too much detail, too many good ideas mixed with filler ideas.  So, if you like reading books about the latest economic work on development, then this book is for you.  (The students in my macroeconomic theory class seemed to like it.)  But, if you are only moderately interested in the topic, it’s better to wait for the still-to-be-written book which will synthesize all the interesting ideas from books like this into a Grand Narrative.  That book is just waiting to be written.  It will sell very well.  But, I am not sure who will write it.  The problem is that all the people who would naturally write it (like Banerjee and Duflo) are (not surprisingly) more interested in writing a book explaining why their own personal ideas on the subject are the most interesting ones.

10.  A few weeks back, I got a copy of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.  What a great album—I’ve had it on the truck CD player for weeks now.  Now, I’ve never really been a big fan of Bowie (his theatricality doesn’t do much for me) but this album has been a very pleasant surprise.  (Much better music quality than in the clip, by the way.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Don Juan and Tea Cake

In the last week, my tutorial and I went to see the Met Live in HD broadcast of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and met to discuss Zola Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  One of those things is Great, truly Great.  And in an odd coincidence, they have a common theme:  Why do women fall for Men of Low Moral Standing, or, in popular terminology, why do Rakes get the Girl?  None of the students in the tutorial had a decent answer when I asked that, but then again, none of them had any particular plans to be wooed by Don Juan.

Mozart’s opera was fantastic.  The music was incredible, of course.  But the two male leads were phenomenal—simply amazing.  It’s hard to imagine anyone playing either of those parts any better.  Amazing voices, and seriously great stage presence.  The female leads were adequate.  The scene of the Don’s decent into Hell was incredible—I have always loved that part of the opera when I heard it; seeing it with these actors was one of the best things I have ever watched. 

The Met has interviews with the singers during the intermission.  The interview with the guy who played Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecien) had a clever insight.  His take on why the opera was so popular is that women all love Giovanni because he is exactly what ever woman wants.  No matter what a woman wants a man to be, Giovanni is that for her.  And why do men like the opera?  Well, they just like the music.

Hurston’s novel was good; I enjoyed reading it.  But, Great Book?  Not even close.  The plot moves along, and the attempt to capture the vernacular echoes Twain.  But I think Ellison got it right when he noted that Hurston’s work (both this book and Moses, Man of the Mountain) “though possessing technical competence, retains the blight of calculated burlesque that has marred most of her writing.”  (That is in “Recent Negro Fiction,” New Masses 1941—the part after the comma get quoted everywhere on the internet, it is everywhere mistakenly stated to refer only to Their Eyes Were Watching God and the source is never mentioned—such is the internet.)  Both parts of Ellison’s comment seem right—it is technically fine, but in the end, it is a novel which I find very hard to take seriously.  It is all so contrived, like some giant morality play in one of those old time theaters where we are supposed to hiss at the villains and gasp at their villainies and cheer the hero when he trods onto the stage to rescue the damsel in distress.  And then there is the shocking ending, which is pure contrivance and not terribly shocking, portraying itself as a moral dilemma, that when you think about it is no dilemma at all—Our heroine shoots and kills the man she loves when he becomes rabid and attacks her.  Really now.  If you wanted to make a real moral dilemma have him attack her without being rabid.  But find the moral problem here:  Someone you love is rabid and completely crazy.  You find a loaded gun under his pillow.  You see there are only three bullets, so you spin the chamber so the three blank chambers come first.   He later points the gun at you.  He pulls the trigger three times.  He is about to pull the trigger the fourth time.  Should you shoot him before he has time to pull the trigger the fourth time?  Really?  That’s the best you can do?  If I asked a question like that in a tutorial, it would be laughed at for it absurd simplicity.  And here we have a book which has Great Book pretensions which has that as the shocking conclusion?  Calculated burlesque indeed.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Apres le Deluge

An eventful week, to put it mildly.  I still have hours of work with my temperamental and not-so-trusty chainsaw ahead.  Why are chainsaws so temperamental, anyway?   

Everyone has a story about the storm.  So here is mine.

On Monday, being stranded at the house since the college had closed, I was restricted to reading a book I had on hand.  Since I was reading Stephen Crane’s poetry (more about that at some later date), I had my Library of America volume on hand, and thus decided to read one of his novels.  I almost reread The Red Badge f Courage, but, at the last second, decided to read Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.  It is one of those books which is too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story and thus gets called a Novella, which is a word I have always, and probably irrationally, detested—it is an ugly word—it’s like condemning a book to being permanently nothing, neither  novel (a noble art form) or short story (another noble art form)—have you ever seen a list of the 100 best novellas of all time?  Of course not.  Has anyone ever asked for a recommendation for a good novella?  Surely you jest.  So, let us just agree not to (further) insult poor Maggie and call her a Novel.

It’s a good novel.  Indeed, after reading Crane’s poetry and this novel, I am now determined to spend lots more time with Crane. 

Reading this novel on Monday was a nice coincidence of fictional and real life.  Here I am in the midst of hearing tales of woe from people living in 21st century America without power, reading a novel of people living in rather poor conditions a century earlier.  Not even close who had it better.  Our story revolves around a family with a perpetually drunk father and a perpetually drunk mother who abuse each other physically and verbally at all times.  The have a son, whose goal in life is to be able to be able to physically crush anyone he meets.  They have another child, a baby, who dies, presumably from neglect.  And then there is Maggie, the sweet kid.  So sweet, in fact, that she falls for an acquaintance of the son.  Pete’s claim on Maggie’s affections is the self-assured manner in which he carries himself. Pete takes notice of Maggie, who looks sweet and clean.  Maggie goes out with Pete, and is fascinated by a world of alcohol and strip clubs (well, the late 19th century version of strip clubs).  Maggie becomes a fallen woman.  Pete, predictably enough, eventually leaves Maggie for a higher class of prostitute.  Maggie, however, has degraded herself beneath the standard of her drunk and violent family and thus they refuse to allow her back into their home.  So, she walks the streets.  The whole things ends miserably enough in murder or suicide (it isn’t clear which).

Meanwhile, some people in the area in which I live went without power for a few days.