RECOMMENDED WINTER READING (November 30, 2021)
Long dark winter nights. A comfy chair, a cup of whatever warms you and a new inviting book. Here are some of my recent reads. See if one appeals, enlightens and entertains.
Ivan Doig, The Sea Runners (1982)
If you’re like me, stimuli sometimes seem to come together by chance from different sources to ratchet up your interest in a subject. In April, I blogged about Fort Ross, a mid-19th century Russian colonial outpost on the northern California coast. In August, scientists reported new evidence that ancient peoples had reached Southern California’s Channel Islands 13,000 years ago, traveling by sea from the Arctic North. Then in September, friend and blog subscriber Jennifer Seely alerted me to this Ivan Doig novel, a thrilling fictionalization of a true story about indentured laborers at Fort Ross’s mother base, New Archangel (now Sitka), who escaped in 1851 and canoed 1,200 miles south to Astoria, Washington.
Doig was best known as a Wild West writer, cranking out 16 non-fiction and fiction works about his native Montana. A journalist and historian, he labelled himself a member of the “lariat proletariat,” a voice for the working class. One of the most engaging qualities of The Sea Runners is that its protagonists are uneducated laborers – skilled but inarticulate, driven but terrified. No Captain Cooks or Sir Francis Drakes in this boat; these guys just paddled. The other aspect I most respected was that Doig emphasizes his characters’ near-blind reckoning. With only the crudest of maps and sensationalist rumors, they pushed off into the bleak, blank unknown. Every current was a threat. Each fogbank masked the edge of the continent. Could I have done it? Would I have had the guts? What’s that roar around the point?
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013)
Sequoias pal Susan Abernethy recommended this novel. It is powerful, moving and artfully written. Amazing that it’s this author’s first published work, written at 27. The book received accolades from the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal. Not shabby for a novice!
Its characters, relationships and predicaments are heartbreakers. Its descriptions of Chechniya and that enclave’s hellish conflict with Russia and Russians are insightful but chilling.
Two caveats temper my enthusiasm. In order to compress complex national developments into a tale of five days and seven characters, Marra resorts to contrived plot gimmicks and coincidences. And for reasons he unconvincingly explains in his comments, he reshuffles his chronological narrative, ricocheting back and forth among past, present and future.
Structural reservations aside, this is a wrenching saga, skillfully crafted. Especially for readers interested in the Caucasus and state terrorism, A Constellation is well worth your attention.
Yiftach Reicher Atir: The English Teacher (2013)
A core tenet of writers’ workshops is to “write what you know.” Don’t fake it; your readers can tell. Reicher Atir had solid credentials for creating a convincing thriller about Mossad counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East. After a successful career in Israeli military intelligence, rising to Brigadier General, he knew close-at-hand the culture, hierarchy and methods of his partner institution, the National Intelligence Agency. In an Author’s Note, Reicher Atir explained what brought him to this fictional reimagining of real-life espionage. “What is it like to live a secret life among one’s enemies, for months and years? How does one deal with the ever-present fear, and the great loneliness?”
I most admired two facets of his gritty reconstruction:
- The sensitive depiction of the layered relationship between a Mossad case officer and his female field operative: intimate and trusting, yet always inhibited by client-agency pressures and eaves-dropping.
- The heart-in-your-throat tension when accompanying that operative across manned borders into enemy territory or anticipating a midnight “game’s-up” knock on a flimsy hotel-room door.
In my own career, I periodically worked alone for prolonged periods in foreign countries. I can empathize with this character’s isolation and dis-ease. Yet my assignments were in development-assistance, often protected by a UN passport. Covert counter-terrorism is another order of exposure. One wrong answer or misstep can lead to detention and interrogation, even torture and execution.
The English Teacher dramatizes embedded infiltration with sweat and suspense. Gripping tradecraft in the Le Carré tradition. Ask your library for a copy.
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry for the Future (2021)
Kim Stanley Robinson built his first-rank reputation writing science-fiction that’s heavy on science. His Martian Trilogy won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. In The Ministry for the Future, he turns his attention to global warming and climate change. This tale includes lengthy technical discussions of CO2 emissions, extreme weather events and geo-engineering experiments to slow glacial melting and sea-level rising.
Interwoven with science is a political narrative featuring paralyzed central banks, earnest but marginalized UN agencies, fierce eco-terrorists and desperate heat-fleeing refugees. Pursuing his parallel interest in environmental conservation, Robinson tosses in lyrical passages celebrating remote scenes of natural beauty, complete with resident wildlife.
What I most enjoyed was the near-term timeframe for this global drama: starting in 2022 and continuing only 40 years into the future. This is tomorrow and the days after, not remote fantasy. The proximity and familiarity of his scenarios caused me to shudder with recognition. I started reading this book just as Senator Joe Manchin was announcing he’d oppose any version of President Biden’s climate-change-mitigation legislation that attempted to phase out American reliance on fossil fuels. I finished it as our consequently compromised President was preparing to travel to Glasgow to help lead the latest international round of climate-change negotiations. Another case of fact overtaking fiction.
My wife Nancy is a discerning reader of science-fiction. She always says that the most convincing works in this genre take present realities as their starting point and then rotate the what-if dial one or two settings. Forget shape-shifting heroes or benign extraterrestrials saving our boodies. There’s nobody here but us chickens.
William Dalrymple: The Anarchy (2019)
When I lived and worked in Delhi in the late 1960s, the sprawling cityscape was dotted with Mughal ruins: Humayan’s and Safdarjang’s tombs, the Purana Qila, the Qu’tb Minar and the Red Fort. Crumbling, vine-torn relics of dynastic glory.
William Dalrymple’s early history of the British East India Company reanimates these structures with imperial pomp, diplomacy and intrigue. His timeframe is compact: the second half of the 18th Century. A period of turbulent transition when Mughals, Afghans, Marathas and Bengali Nawabs all jockeyed for Subcontinental primacy while the Company (EIC) morphed from opportunistic coastal traders to colonial masters.
What makes his account so powerful, beyond a sense of drama and a lucid narrative voice, is the breadth and depth of his research sources. Over several years, Dalrymple studied and cross-referenced English-language EIC records in London and Calcutta, Persian-language histories from the Mughal Court, and contemporary French-language materials preserved in Pondicherry. As a bonus, he was able to draw on his own family archives; more than one of his ancestors played significant roles in this South Asian drama.
The author takes us up to the front to witness pivotal battles hour by hour. Quoting field dispatches from both sides of these conflicts, he reports how contesting generals strategized and improvised, remarking how outcomes in close contests often turned on misperceptions, miscalculations and blind luck. Accompanying contemporary illustrations diagram massive formations of artillery, cavalry, infantry and elephants. The Company’s army was twice as large as Britain’s own.
Here’s an illustrative passage that evokes the scale and sweep of these military campaigns:
East India Company armies had accumulated a huge establishment of attendants, assistants and support staff. In the end, the total body heading west amounted to more than 100,000 people, including mahouts and coolies, grass-cutters and horse-keepers, tent lascars and bullock-men, Banjarrah grain-collectors and money-changers, female quacks, jugglers, groups of dancing girls and votaries of pleasure. These numbers did not, of course, include the thousands of elephants, camels, horses, poultry and flocks of goats and sheep which followed close on their heels: “The march of our army had the appearance of a moving town or citadel,” remembered Major Thorn, “in the form of an oblong square whose sides were defended by ramparts of glittering swords and bayonets.”
Economics and politics receive equal attention in Dalrymple’s sweeping narrative. We learn about the value of Company exports of tea, indigo and opium, the payrolls of massive armies and machinations of Indian banking houses. (An invaluable editorial device he employs is converting all 18th-Century monetary amounts into 21st-Century equivalent British pounds.) The author takes us inside British Parliament to watch personal enemies of the Company’s Governor General manipulate impeachment proceedings.
The cast of principal characters is so extensive in this South Asian epic that Dalrymple leads with a roster of dramatis personae. The personalities are operatic: larger than life, all complicated, no one-dimensional saints or sinners, heroes or villains. EIC governors and military commanders Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, the Wellesley brothers and Viscount Lake. Six Mughal Emperors culminating in the multitalented but tragic Shah Alam. The brilliant but sadistic Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. Rohillas, Scindias and Holkars, contesting chieftains skirmishing beyond their regional domains. In a curious cross-cultural contrast, several of the Indian leaders were more sophisticated than the Brits, speaking Persian and Arabic as well as local languages, patronizing the arts, reciting and composing poetry. But several of these same individuals were also brutal combatants, imprisoning, torturing and executing captured adversaries. Full-color portraits by contemporary European and Asian artists illustrate how these allies and adversaries looked, dressed and sought to be remembered.
Much of their rolling conflict unfolds as a proxy war between Britain and France. French mercenaries train and equip Indian princes to stem the Company’s expansion. In 1798, Napoleon dispatches a massive fleet to Cairo en route to Asia to challenge Britain’s Indian presence directly. Only a dramatic victory by Admiral Nelson in the Battle of the Nile closed off that eastern theater. Meanwhile, young Arthur Wellesley cuts his military chops in Mysore before earning lasting fame as the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.
There are even American connections to this India drama. The Chinese tea dumped in Boston harbor to trigger the American Revolutionary War was an EIC shipment. And Charles Cornwallis, humiliated at Yorktown by surrendering to George Washington, redeemed his reputation in the Company’s employ as Governor General of Bengal.
My one complaint about this stunning history is Dalrymple’s acceptance of a moralistic epilogue grafted onto the end of his impressively balanced account. In what I guess may have been a concession to sales-hungry publishers, the author links East India Company excesses to current misconduct by modern multinational corporations. Exxon, Walmart and Google are swept into the same bag, with sponsoring governments disingenuously depicted as outmaneuvered victims of capitalistic greed and corruption. This piety flatly ignores Dalrymple’s own evidence that the British Government knowingly utilized the Company as its convenient agent, not unlike American Government contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. (In fact, for decades the EIC gave its governmental client a financial free ride.)
Belatedly lambasting the EIC as the lead bad actor in this complex saga is inconsistent with Dalrymple’s own research and narrative. Throughout this turbulent period, alliances among all parties were constantly shifting. As often as the Company was their enemy, the EIC served as princely states’ protectors and financiers. The book would have been far stronger without this unconvincing, politically correct, revisionist coda.
George Friedman: The Storm before the Calm (2020)
Len Baker recommended this book to our Bay Area Yale64 Zoom circle. Friedman’s subtitle reveals the topic wrapped within his punning title: “America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s and The Triumph Beyond.” I was primed for this futurist’s prognostications because America’s stutter-step transformation is my chief public-affairs preoccupation.
I greatly enjoyed the author’s imaginative energy. He predicts a seismic political shift in the coming decade in the form of a marriage of convenience between Black and White have-nots, finding common cause against what Friedman labels the elite technocracy. He targets elite universities as the gatekeepers of political, economic and cultural privilege and advocates forgiveness of student debt as the most potent siege engine for breaching these walls. And he singles out senior citizens as the new drivers of the American economy, since birthrates are plummeting and life-spans extending. The author applauds seniors’ accumulated wisdom but cautions that they’ll lack current technological knowledge.
Detracting from his provocative projections are an abundance of analytical defects. Friedman imposes on American history a template of 70-year institutional cycles and 50-year socioeconomic cycles, coinciding in the 2020s, the author’s chronological focus. I could accept this frame as an ingenious metaphor for perceived structural repetitions. But he unconvincingly insists that these cycles have objective predictive reality. He also trumpets America’s “uniqueness” as an invented nation that deserves its imperial world domination. And he glaringly omits any serious consideration of climate change, Chinese ascendance or American oligarchs. (His bald rationalization for ignoring global warming? Scientists’ models are not yet complete; besides, national governments will never agree to cooperate on addressing this crisis.)
Ironically, for a book focused on the future, what I most enjoyed about The Storm before the Calm was Friedman’s innovative reconceptualization and synthesis of America’s past. With persuasive schematic maps and statistical tables, he emphasizes the dominant influence of geography on our nation’s formative growth and ruptures:
The Atlantic and the Appalachians defined the colonies. The distance between the two shaped not just the commercial but the moral nature of the colonies. South of Pennsylvania, the Appalachians were over two hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. There was flat, fertile land in abundance, for large commercial plantations. North of Pennsylvania, the distance from the mountains to the ocean was much less, the soil was rocky and hilly, and there winters were long. There was room only for family farms, craftsmen, merchants and bankers. In the North, a helper or two was all that was required. This distinction defined American history, slave and free, confederate and unionist. It was there from the beginning. Geography made slavery desirable and profitable in the South. In the North, geography made slavery uneconomical.
Expanding this geographical theme, Friedman emphasizes how rivers were also formative for the new nation. In the northeast, rivers ran north/south, connecting small states but ill-serving exports. In the southeast, their east/west flow provided arteries for cotton and tobacco exports to Britain’s commanding markets. And west of the Appalachians, Jefferson correctly perceived that acquisition, through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, of the sprawling Mississippi River system would secure the survival and expansion of a transcontinental power.
The author underlines the major impact on America’s development of the French, Spanish, Mexicans and Native Americans, highlighting with dated maps their vast territorial holdings. Particularly surprising (for me at least) was the Comanche empire stretching from the Rockies to the Mississippi, penetrating deeply into Canada and Mexico.
The perception that the European settlers simply overwhelmed helpless and spiritual people, or that weak savages were brushed aside, is untrue. In fact, the Europeans defeated capable and sophisticated empire builders, as well as weaker nations. The Comanche and the Iroquois, along with the Aztecs and the Incas, had themselves built significant empires subjecting other nations to their power. They also understood the use of force. The Indians were as capable as the Europeans of all human virtues and vices.
Rushing a contemporary political assessment into print always risks being overtaken by events. Friedman published before the 2020 election and hence gave Trump unchallenged top billing. That said, the author characterizes Trump not as the engine of division but as opportunist: He “won the 2016 election by grasping the alienation of broad sectors of society, not only from the federal government but also from those who served in it” [implicitly including Hilary Clinton.] Looking ahead to the 2020s, the author predicts an intensifying clash of classes. After one last-gasp presidential victory in 2024 by a defender of elite technocracy, he looks for a savvier-than-Trump populist advocate for the mobilized disadvantaged to launch a new cycle of American recovery and reinvention in 2028.
I strongly agree with Friedman that the 2020s will be increasingly contentious. But I strongly disagree that a populist champion can lead the nation through this necessary transformation. For me, America’s highest-priority public-policy challenges will be global in scope and multi-polar in resolution: climate change, pandemic management and superpower competition. The key domestic confrontations will also require deft, consensus-building leadership: demographic tilts, voting suppression and reform, destabilizing economic and educational inequities, and cultural warfare. Neither dimension can be effectively addressed by populism, protectionism or nationalism.
Friedman is a bold analyst and articulate writer. Take a look at his take.
Ross King: The Bookseller of Florence (2021)
If you were producing a dramatic documentary on the Italian Renaissance, who would you showcase as your leads? Leonardo and Michelangelo? Dante and Machiavelli? So intense and transformative was this starburst of creative energy, we still recognize the names and works of dozens of contributors 600 years later.
Renaissance architecture, painting and sculpture all inspire our wonder. But literature drove this cultural reawakening. Fragmentary texts from ancient Greece and Rome were exhumed from remote European monasteries and hand-carried from Constantinople by westward-fleeing scholars following that city’s capture by Ottoman Turks in 1453. These “Classical” works were pieced together, authenticated, translated and analyzed by Italians eager to affiliate with the legacy of a Mediterranean Golden Age. The speeches of Cicero and poems of Virgil were publicly recited; the competing philosophies of Aristotle and Plato were hotly debated.
To capture this era’s intellectual foment and productivity, Ross King homes in on the superficially dull activity of book-publishing. And since personal profiles are always more magnetic than statistics, he has structured his inquiry around a single individual: Vespasiano da Bisticci, the premier European bookseller during the Renaissance’s ascendant 15th Century. To the modern ear, “bookseller” evokes Barnes & Noble. This association vastly underestimates the scope and sweep of Vespasiano’s services, connections and influence. Financed by deep-pocket customers ranging from popes to princes, he dispatched sleuths across the Continent, ferreting out long-neglected copies of Classical texts. Then he sponsored scholars to authenticate and reconcile source materials, scribes to hand-copy the texts and miniaturists to insert illuminated illustrations. The resulting one-of-a-kind parchment manuscripts were works of art. It’s no exaggeration to conclude that Vespasiano supplied intellectual infrastructure for the diffusion of Renaissance humanism.
Luring his modern readers into this antique but exotic market, King amplifies his historical account with step-by-step explanations of manuscript production, as well as printing-press operation following Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention, also in 1453.
Along the way, the author offers intimate profiles of Florentine neighborhoods, key scholars and patrons, tracing the latter’s dynastic rivalries and military skirmishes that regularly disrupted civil and intellectual security. One charming narrative strand traces the expansion of Florence’s leading print-publishing house, the Dominican convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli. The cloistered nuns collaborated with lay compositors and pressmen to crank out dozens of popular publications. And not merely clerical tracts. The Ripoli Press list featured ribald, explicitly irreverent tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron.
No passive compiler of historical 3×5 cards, King devotes research and wit to debunking clichés we seniors may remember from Western Civ 101:
- Savonarola of Bonfire-of-the-Vanities notoriety was not a crackpot anti-Renaissance demagogue. In King’s analysis, the populist preacher and Florentine humanists “shared many of the same aspirations, especially the moral reform of a society they believed to be politically corrupt, morally bankrupt and spiritually vacuous.” In fact, the selective provocateur took pains to ensure that Cicero and Virgil escaped the flames.
- Not all Renaissance popes were nepotistic schemers. Sixtus IV, to be sure. But Nicholas V, in dramatic contrast, was a brilliant, multilingual scholar of Classical and clerical texts, a respected bibliophile and library patron.
- Those Florentine citizens we admire as refined humanists were the same folks who assembled in mobs to lynch political opponents from second-story windows and parade victims’ heads on pikes through piazzas.
- Johannes Gutenberg’s mid-century invention did not immediately revolutionize European publishing or literacy. Fifty years later, in 1500, only 11% of Europe’s larger cities had their first printing press. Rural literacy remained below 5%. And 70% of all published books were still written in Latin, keeping their contents virtually inaccessible to all but the educated.
Reassessments and revelations like these appear in every chapter. The reminders and surprises are entertaining and educational. If you love books, curl up with this eye-opening commemoration.