Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The world can be ugly and brutal. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin subject is Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and the impact that both Hitler’s and Stalin’s murderous policies had on the population of the region. This time and place was as ugly and brutal as it ever got. The book is remarkably well researched and morbidly fascinating. It is also a difficult and troubling read. The subject of this book involves what are likely the darkest and most disturbing events in human history. This work catalogues killings upon killings. Tales of mass, intentional starvations, torture, and sadism abound here. Most distressing is the scale of death involved.  Not hundreds, not thousands, not even millions, but tens of millions of people were murdered and exposed to atrocities. This was perhaps the worst mass murder and in world history (I say “perhaps” as some scholars contend that the Mongols killed more people in the 13th and 14th centuries). It encompassed the Holocaust as well plenty of other barbarisms.

For those who are not familiar with Stalin’s crimes, he perpetuated horror on a comparable scale to Hitler. He practiced intentional mass starvations, mass shootings as well as multiple terror campaigns that were actually the model for many of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.

As is often the case with insightful and well thought out books, there are many themes to contemplate here. One particularly important strand in the narrative is the exploration of the motivations behind the mass atrocities. From my experience, I find that that many people think of Hitler on very simplistic terms as “a madman who was trying to conquer the world.” I often encounter those who no nothing of Stalin. Some of those who know just a little bit about the Soviet leader have a vague notion that he was an evil dictator who liked to kill people (he was, but there is more to it).

As Snyder explains, both leaders pursued their own “Utopian Ideologies”. Stalin was attempting to collectivize agricultural production over a vast area, encompassing a huge population. A little later the Russian dictator began what is known as the “Great Terror”, the goal of which was to eliminate potential internal support for foreign invaders. These campaigns added up to an attempt to eliminate entire social and political classes, first through a planned, intentional famine, and later through a state sponsored terror, culminating in mass executions and nightmarish forced labor.

Hitler was attempting to establish a vast eastern empire, mostly for its agrarian potential. His plan was to exterminate and enslave the enormous populations currently occupying this segment of the earth. He envisioned a huge expanded Reich, stretching from Siberia to the Rhine that would be a paradise for the German people. Hatred for Jews was an added political and social motivator.

The result was genocide (this is a term that, as Snyder explains, he prefers not to use), untold misery, and the blackest moments in human history. Partial blame for these horrors can be laid upon fanatical, un-skeptical and uncompromising devotion to these ideas. These were belief systems so ill conceived and uncritically accepted that they led unspeakable horrors on a barely imaginable scale.

I do not want to give impression that I believe these crimes were committed solely because of mindless adherence to ideology. There were many other reasons, some connected and some not so connected to these horrendous philosophies. Ingrained racism and anti- Semitism, the depravations of First World War, the cult of personality, etc. were also major factors. However, one important lesson here is that blind faith in uncompromising mindsets and plans, reinforced by unceasing propaganda, can lead to terrible consequences.

Those interested in further reading into the hell that the world descended into during this era might want to try Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World. Though this is another book that is not a cheery read, Ferguson details the surge in killings and violence that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century and attempts to identify its causes.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

I Married a Communist is one of Philip Roth’s  “Zuckerman” novels. It is the seventh in the series. Over the last few years I have been working through this sequence and reading the books in order. I love these works.

I have immensely enjoyed everything that I have ever read by Roth. His writing contains multiple insights into people and the world. His wit, as well as his characters, are often hilarious. When he is tragic, it is devastatingly effective. The tendency is moving toward tragedy, and less lighthearted playfulness in the Zuckerman Series, as the books progress and the characters age. His writing style is easy to digest yet not simplistic. His structured plots are artfully interlaced with complex and thought provoking themes.

 Though a “Zuckerman” Book, Nathan Zuckerman is not the main character in I Married a Communist. Instead, he is more of a bystander influenced by the main players, as well as an interpreter of their actions. The protagonist here is Ira Ringold, an unsophisticated Newark tough, who goes off to fight World War II, and who becomes seduced with communist ideology. When Ira returns from the war, he eventually finds success as a radio actor and marries into upper crust American society. Ira is not a menace to America, he is no spy or saboteur, just an very overbearing and naive ideologue. Ira is eventually brought down less by McCarthyism, then by a terribly dysfunctional relationship with his wife and stepdaughter.

I Married a Communist follows the brilliant American Pastoral in the series.  American Pastoral was superb. It was one of the best twentieth century novels that I have read. I Married a Communist is not quite up to that level; it does not pack the same emotional punch and is not as esthetically satisfying.  Nonetheless, in my opinion this is still a really good, perhaps great novel. American Pastoral is just a tough act to follow.

The Zuckerman books are full of interesting themes. I will mention that some readers have found that these works become repetitive. Roth has come under criticism for this perceived redundancy. See the below link to a New York Times piece about Carmen Callil’s opinion on this and other issues. Callil contends, among several complaints, that Roth repeats himself. While in a way, Callil has a point, I ultimately do not agree with the conclusion.

Roth does tend to explore similar or even the same themes over and over again in the course of many books. In my opinion, in Roth’s case, this is not a flaw. Like the composer of a complex piece of classical music, who starts with a musical theme and repeats it in a variety of forms over the course of the entire work, Roth imaginatively and expertly looks at several aspects of the human condition from multitude of angles and points of view. He accomplishes this over a series of books. Like the composer who restates a chosen theme using different keys, emphasis. tempo, etc., Roth takes an idea, and applies it to various people and situations that may be too diverse to fit into one novel.

One of Roth’s most important reoccurring motifs is the concept of human identity, or the way in which a person and others thinks about “self”. Roth’s thinking about what it means for a person to have identity owes much, to both Shakespeare, who is often referenced directly and indirectly by Roth’s characters, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly the  Great Gatsby’s conception of the American propensity to reinvent and shift identities.

How precisely does Roth explore identity? In I Married a Communist, the various characters try to establish their identities, slip in and out of identities, hide their identities, fake identities, and finally have invalid identities forced upon them by others. The later sub - theme; that of having a false identity forced upon you, fits in well with the era described here. Most of the narrative takes place of post World War II America, when a multitude of non - communists were falsely accused and identified as being communists. The way that Roth weaves together this complex lattice of character and identity, as the various personalities evolve and interact, is a wonder.

For instance, I Married a Communist’s character of Eve Frame is born and raised Jewish. As she becomes accepted in the White Anglo Protestant world of mid twentieth century upper class America, she hides, perhaps even from herself, her Jewish origins, and actually develops real feelings of anti – Semitism. Later she is indifferent to the fact that her husband is a dyed in the wool communist (not someone who is falsely accused, but the real thing). Later still, she changes her “self” again and poses as a right wing, flag waving, anti –communist patriot, but privately admits that this position is just an act. Eve’s shifting persona interacts with a variety of others, who also share the all too human trait of having shifting, false, and misinterpreted selves.

My advice for anyone wishing to delve into the Zuckerman books is not to start I Married a Communist since it is late in the series. As a “Completest”, I would start at the beginning with Ghost Writer. The first four novels can actually be found in one volume as Zuckerman Bound. If one definitely does not want to read all the books, American Pastoral can be read standalone (Nathan Zuckerman is not even the main character in this one either), and is well worth it.

I have two more books to go, The Human Stain, and Exit Ghost cannot wait to get to them!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blood Meridian

I recently made it through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West.

Wow! What a book!

Prospective readers need to be warned, this is one of the most violent pieces of fiction that I have read. If you do not want to read page after page about killings and torture, then do not read this. I emphasize, this book is filled with graphic and brutal viciousness.

 As someone who knows a fair amount about history I know that human cruelty of the magnitude depicted here is real, and it happens more often then I like to think about. I also know that many of these fictional horrors presented here are based upon real events, as is the general plot of this story.

One striking thing about the violence and killings that are presented in Blood Meridian is that McCarthy presents them without emotion, judgment or commentary. The fact that the savagery is so impersonal in this work, made it a little easier for me to get through. McCarthy seems to be depicting the violence like an objective scientist would do so. This ties in with what seems to be the main goal of this work, which is to study violence dispassionately but philosophically. McCarthy is not pro – violence. He just seems to be trying to dig very deep without letting moral judgments get too much in the way. I think that this is also is related to the fact that other then periods, there is no punctuation in the book. It as if McCarthy is trying to avoid letting things like commas and apostrophes shade the reality of what he is depicting.

McCarthy tells a very basic story of a gang of scalp hunters rampaging through the American West and Mexico in 1849. Though brutal to begin with, the gang encounters a strange, mystical character called The Judge. This demon-like persona seems to represent violence and war, both in reality and in philosophy. Blood Meridian is full of The Judge’s elaborate, and intricate soliloquies and meditations on the primal and universal nature of human violence. I cheated a bit and did some Google searching on this book. It seems that the Judge’s beliefs are deeply connected with obscure theological thinking dating back to medieval and even Biblical times.

This is a deep work. Almost every page is filled with heavy philosophical overtones both on violence as well as humankind’s place in the universe. In many ways it is reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, with which this work has parallels as well as allusions to. Like Melville, McCarthy seems to be trying to get to a universal theory and to ascertain fundamental truths about people and the world. The central theme here is the ubiquity of human violence.

Yet, as much as I love deep philosophical and metaphysical ramblings such as presented in this work, I am a rationalist at heart. I believe that human violence, aggression and sadism can be simply explained by our genes. Our tendency to kill is ultimately a product of natural selection and evolution. I believe that violence is not all that special in this light, and shares a similar explanations with other important aspects to the human condition such as love, altruism, greed, etc. Due to my convictions, maybe some the mystery and profoundness that McCarthy builds around human viciousness are a bit lost upon me. Is he making too much of what is essentially a survival strategy shaped by millions of years of evolution?

It seems to me that if one were a victim of human savagery, one might really experience a terrible emotional and soul- damaging reality that might be “worthy” of deep metaphysical musings. However, McCarthy’s text is uninterested in the point of view of the victims.

As a result, at times while reading the book, I began to think perhaps McCarthy is reading (or writing) to much into the philosophy and Meta–physics of violence. Strangely, the text actually ends in an argument that may be similar my own thoughts. In the book’s thematic climax, the other main character, known as The Kid, ultimately dismisses the Judge and his philosophy, “You ain’t nothing” is his summation of it all.  Ironically the Judge replies, “You speak truer than you know” seemingly in agreement. Perhaps it is all just genes, chemistry, and electrical impulses! This book so transcends simple explanation! This IS an amazingly philosophic and complex work.

Blood Meridian is an extraordinary book for those who feel that they can get through it. There are so many amazing aspects that I have not touched on, not the least of which is an innovative and beautiful writing style. It is not however, for the faint of heart.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I just finished Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. I highly recommend this one. It is fairly comprehensive, yet very readable account of Franklin’s life. Like most worthwhile biographies, it contains a multitude of ideas worth pondering.

One of Isaacson’s principle themes is that Franklin was a supreme thinker, but he was a mostly practice thinker. He had very little interest in higher-level concepts. This was true for all of Franklin’s various pursuits including science, philosophy, theology, politics, etc. For instance, Franklin’s writings encouraged various “good” and efficient behavior aimed at making a person a success. Abstract and metaphysical concepts relating to this behavior, such as virtue, Forms, pleasing God, etc., had little place in Franklin’s worldview.  Isaacson makes a strong case that Franklin could be pigeonholed into a class of practical men who have little inclination to theorize about such nonconcrete ideas.

Reading the Franklin biography, I was struck by the diversity of fields that man successfully delved into. He was truly a Renaissance Man. This Founding Farther made important contributions to philosophy, science, newspaper publishing, business, and American Society in general. Furthermore it can be argued, and Isaacson does, that Franklin achieved one of, and perhaps the greatest, diplomatic success in American history. He was the architect of the alliance with France that was essential for the survival of the young United States. On top of this, his role in the creation of the Declaration of independence as well as the Drafting of the US Constitution had a profound effect upon American History as well current events. If one looks at the political happenings of the current American government, one we see a process partially shaped by Franklin.

I think that it is inconceivable that a citizen of the 21st century could achieve this level of success in so many diverse areas as Franklin did. I would argue that there was detailed knowledge relating to these various fields back in the 18th century, thus making it easier to be so accomplished in such a wide variety of pursuits.

I also believe that the world was more tolerant of generally smart people poking around in professions with no formal training or education back then. Just imagine a successful newspaper publisher and/or columnist today deciding to conduct research in electrical engineering, with no formal background in the field!

I am not minimizing Franklin’s accomplishments. He was a genius. His genius was just very compatible with his time.

Anyone with additional interest in Franklin’s great diplomatic success in Europe might also try with Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. I read Schiff’s book about a year ago. It is an intricately detailed account of Franklin’s mission to France from 1776 to 1785. Since her work covers such a specialized topic, I would say that Schiff’s book is for those who have a serious curiosity in that diplomatic endeavor.

Monday, January 2, 2012

First Post!

I love to read. I really love to read.  I always have loved reading. Since I was a child I have always gotten excited at the prospect of beginning a new book. I daydream about books and sometimes I even dream about them.

 Thus I am starting this blog. I want to begin a record chronicling my thoughts on the various works that I complete. Along the way I may throw in some random musing about society, politics, current events, etc.

Though my tastes have matured, reading is the one hobby that I have consistently stuck with since childhood. I am not an expert in most of the subjects that I read about. My greatest qualification is that I am an insatiably curious person.

So why do I read so much? What should people get out of reading?  The answer is different for all individuals. For me, this is a quest. I am trying to piece together and understand the world.  I am SO very interested in human thought, human history and human culture. After these “people” interests, the natural world also holds immense fascinations for me.

As I love serious literature, history, science, business and other subjects, I can be described as a generalist. However I do believe that everyone should have at least one area that they concentrate upon. So for me, it is the history of Revolutionary era  America. I make a conscious effort to read about one third to one half of my history in this area. A little bit of specialization never hurt!

One question, repeated over and over again for me, and ultimately related to why I read, and is simply: what to read next? Over the last few years I have been somewhat careful about what books to tackle. There is so little time! In several of his books, Harold Bloom emphasizes the point that if the average human lifespan is about 70 years, one would barely make it thorough Bloom’s own of the Western Cannon, a list of fiction and philosophy that among other things, Bloom believes are worth reading. When I peruse the list of works contained in Bloom’s Cannon, there is scarcely anything listed that I would not want to read. Compounding my problem is that there are lots of works not on the Cannon that I also want to devour. These include many works of fiction, that perhaps Bloom would not approve of. In addition I am an avid reader of History. Then there are other fascinating branches of Non Fiction including science and business. I also cannot fail to mention rereading. This could take over a thousand years! Wasting time on unworthy tomes is a luxury that I do not have.

Over the past few years I have alleviating the problem just a little. As I do run and work out regularly, I find myself often hooked up to headphones. Thus, I have discovered audiobooks! Of course I need to be choosy as what to “read” this way.  I would not tackle something as dense as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow via spoken word. However, for many history books, or even some fiction with accessible prose, recorded books are nice way for me to add “book time” to my life. Audiobooks not withstanding, the vast array of titles that I am interested in, are overwhelming.

So here we go, happy reading everyone!