Sunday, August 13, 2017

Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election the Brought on the Civil War by Douglas R. Egerton

Look who was sitting on the ledge outside my bedroom window this morning.  Isn't it cute?

Cute little squirrel tail:

Playing is Mozart's Divertimento KV 563

Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil WarYear of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War by Douglas R. Egerton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Douglas Egerton is a professor of History and he does an impeccable job describing the presidential campaign that elected Lincoln in 1860.

In 1857, Dr. Emerson moved to Missouri with his slave Dred Scott, where he hired him out on lease. Missouri was a free state and by hiring Scott out there Emerson effectively brought the institution of slavery into a state that had outlawed slavery.

Scott sued for his freedom and while many people assisted him, he ultimately lost. The question was whether a African slave had the same rights as white citizens and if so what did that portend?

This created a domino effect in both the North and the South. What about the states that had come or were coming into the United States? Would they be free or slave holding?

Northern people of any political persuasion, while not necessarily agreeing to granting slaves equal status as white people, nevertheless, did not want future states or western states to become slave states.

Conversely, southern politicians were concerned that they be allowed to expand their slave trade west.
In Egerton's brilliant account, we learn of both Northern and Southern players that caused a furious presidential race that has probably not been equaled, although our most recent election certainly gave it a run for its money.

The trash talking between delegates had an acuity and eloquence that I marvel at. It was a different time period where politicians had sophisticated vocabularies and powers of expression that surpass any modern novelist.

Their passion surpasses today's as well. Our politicians can get ugly, but these guys were bringing knives and guns into the Senate and House.

We learn of the end of the Whig party and the birth of the Republican party, the Southern Democrats and who were the real orchestrators of the Southern states' secession.

Egerton gives us a step by step account of each area of the 1860 election, thorough and interesting descriptions of the different people running and if he gets bogged down in numbers and polls, that's a minor quibble for a good and wild ride through one of the most turbulent times in America.

If you like history and specifically Civil War history this is an invaluable source.

View all my reviews

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher by Peter Stothard

A couple of weekends ago, Josh and I spent a weekend in Fort Worth.  Our first stop was a cluster of art museums and the first museum was the Modern Art building.  

There was an exhibition by Doug Aitken.  One of his works was a surround sound/movie with random people singing I Only Have Eyes for You.  Here is a recording by The Flamingos.

The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret ThatcherThe Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher by Peter Stothard

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Senecans is an example of how I got boonswoggled into reading a book because of a glowing review from a source I respected (ahem, Wall Street Journal...).

The premise sounded great. Peter Stothard is Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and former Editor of the Times. A mysterious young woman arrives to ask him questions about Margaret Thatcher and a group of men called The Senecans who were advisors or something to the Prime Minister. What ensues is a rather rambling, anecdotal account of Stothard's time as one of these Senecans and why Thatcher fell out of favor.

I say "or something" because it never became clear to me what their exact function was. In fact "unclear" ably describes the entire book.

Stothard talks as though we already know British political history, but even if you do, you don't really see what his connection with Thatcher was. He shares some vague anecdotes about her that never really includes direct contact with Thatcher. The rest of the book is talking about each of the "Senecans" but not so that you learn much about them.

They met on a regular basis (I think) at a pub. I'm not sure what any of them did, or whether they liked or hated Thatcher or each other.

They are called the Senecans after Seneca the younger, an advisor to Nero. I think Stothard was tring to make some sort of comparison between Nero and Seneca and Thatcher and his little group.

This connection is as arrogant as it is inaccurate. Thatcher was a Prime Minister who was voted in and later voted out for some unpopular decisions. Stothard alludes to a Poll Tax without explaining what exactly the Poll Tax was or why it was unpopular enough to oust Thatcher from office.

Nero was a monstrous tyrant that raised sadistic cruelty and perversion to such heights that people are still writing about it 2000 years later. Nero made Seneca commit suicide. Thatcher never ordered any of her "Senecans" to kill themselves.

Yet another example of how people in the first world never seem to understand what it means to live under a real tyrant. Perhaps Stothard should transfer his citizenship to North Korea.

And I find the title "Senecans" to a group of men who hung out at a pub to (kinda? sorta?) learn Latin a dubious title. Whatever they might have discussed about politics or history, ancient or modern is left a mystery. Another thing Stothard vaguely alludes to.

Thatcher, I conclude, he hated. I think. I'm not sure except he describes her in irrelevant, unflattering terms. She dresses frumpy. She holds her pearl necklace in a way that hides the one with a stain. She surrounds herself with "flat-faced men" (is he including himself?).

I suppose if you're an insider you would get all this.

Also, the writing is mediocre. How did this guy get knighted? Not for this book, I hope. He puffs his story up with lots (and I mean lots, like half the book) with irrelevant descriptions of the building he is in and how it is being torn down and inane descriptions of his "mysterious Miss Robbins". He could not refer to her or her questions without informing us of what she was wearing, which direction her toes were pointed and every time she gave a tight-lipped smile or looked out the window. I would say it was intrusive, but what was it intruding on?

Stothard flits about from this person to that person including some background information on a childhood experience with a girlfriend (friend that was a girl, not the other kind) whose father he occasionally visited. The father rants about some things political but not in any kind of coherent way. I have no idea where he stood politically. I realize he inserted this episode so when he reveals the identity of Miss Robbins, the reader will go, "Aha!". I went "Whatever."

I read it to the end as a kind of spanking for buying a book on impulse. Let that be a lesson to me.

And this review is a small revenge (very small, I doubt Stothard will read it) for wasting my time.

I do not have to be an Italian citizen do be well familiar with the works of Nero. If you want to actually learn something about Margaret Thatcher and her term as Prime Minister, seek another source.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 7, 2017

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

My son is here for the summer from college where he is studying cinematography.  My little green monster has fallen in love with him.  When I try to pick her up and she's not in the mood, her head puffs up like a tiny green pumpkin.  But if Derek wants to pick her up?  She jumps right onto his shoulder.

Here she is giving him advice on how to write his next screenplay.

I happen to know that at least one of my readers likes recorder music, therefore I hope you will all enjoy Fantasia by Jerome Bassano (1559-1635).

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who is John Galt?

That is the first sentence in this book and for most of the book, we don't know who he is. The question is used as a sarcastic expression to mean, "Who knows?"

Eventually we discover Galt is a real person and that he does exist and he gives a 60 page speech at the end of the book to prove it.

How does one summarize or make a coherent comment on a book of this magnitude?

By that I mean it was incredibly long. Over one thousand pages long.

Did it have its good points? Certainly.

What are they?

For one, I agree with Ayn Rand that if one keeps taking the produce and fruit of hard workers and give them to people who have not earned it, after a while, the workers are going to stop working.

We can see this being played out currently in Europe where Germany is trying to hold an entire continent afloat as fringe countries like Ireland, Portugal and Greece, cling on like a bunch of Mr. Skimpoles demanding their "fair share" while keeping an unemployment rate of: Greece 23%; Portugal youth 29%; Ireland youth: 18%; and let's throw Spanish youth in at 40.4%.

Spain is an interesting study because they have had court cases where young adults pushing 30 years of age are suing their parents for not financially supporting them and they are winning in court.

Ayn Rand is from Russia. Her family escaped the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 by moving to Crimea. This was only a temporary reprieve because soon the Communists came and took everything her family had, including her father's pharmacy, leaving them to starve.

It helps to know that about Rand in order to understand her books.

Atlas Shrugged is about Dagny Taggart.  Her family owns rail road company. She is a smart business woman and is able to keep the trains running smoothly and efficiently due to her acumen.

Hank Rearden has a steel company. He has developed a practically indestructible steel that Taggart is eager to replace her old, defective rail roads with.

Another man who was a brilliant business man, Francisco D'Aconia has apparently sabotaged his own copper company. His reason becomes clear to each of them as a totalitarian state takes control of all the businesses and forces the successful businesses to "share" with the unsuccessful businesses for the sake of "fairness". The government forces all people to share their possessions with others for the same reason.

If this sounds unrealistic to you, France passed a law that larger retail outlets like chain bookstores had to sell their products at the same price as smaller businesses to be fair. Also retail work should be considered a Career like any other profession and be paid equal salaries. One wonders equal to what. Doctors? Politicians who make fairness laws?

I do not know how this will pan out but I predict people will buy fewer books because an individual's budget is fixed and if one only has x amount for buying, that is all the money available. I.e. If one budgets fifty dollars a month for books, one will spend fifty dollars whether it is for one book or five on the clearance rack. In other words, these kind of "fairness" laws are not going to help small bookstores only cause bigger bookstores to lose money. The U.S. has a different story but more about that later.

In the book, rhetoric like "the welfare of the people is at stake" therefore, no one has the right to own their own property, success or even their intellect. Everything must be given to those who need it the most.

The predictable result is that the country begins a slow implosion that gains momentum as the successful people are hindered from working because of the ever heavier regulations imposed on their businesses.

What do the successful people do as the world becomes a bigger burden they are expected to shoulder? They shrug. And in this book they start to disappear. The end result-MAJOR SPOILER- is that the country is forced back into a type of pioneer age because all the major companies have gone bankrupt.

What are the bad points?

For one, while I believe in a minimal amount of government, one that does not become so intrusive that it hinders a society's productivity, it is still necessary to enforce laws that prevent big bosses from exploiting their employees. Share cropping, anyone?

Also, I found Rand's "heroes" repulsive.

Based on the characters in this book I would have to say the Rand is a big fan of Nietzsche. Her heroes are all "Ubermen" (and one women who sleeps with all the Ubermen but, uh, that's OK because morals were invented by the lessors to control everyone. One thinks maybe miss Ayn had a personal fantasy thing going in this novel).

The Uber-people have all the smarts and are really the only ones who should be allowed to live. Everyone else is a parasite and cannot justify their existence. This comes straight out of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Uber-people have the right to keep their intellect and the fruits of it to their individual selves. No one has the right to take it from them. OK, I agree, but Rand moves on to say that no one should help anyone else either. If you starve, too bad. You just weren't smart enough. Rand believed in survival of the fittest.

I cannot brook this. I firmly believe in helping people who genuinely need help (not people who believe they are entitled to the fruits of others' labor such as able-bodied persons who make personal choices, bad choices, like abusing drugs or having a lot of babies or growing up in a culture where everyone lives off the welfare state). People who are old, infirm, temporarily unemployed or children who are helpless to the immoral choices of their families need help. Not because they deserve it, but because it is right and good to help them. But the government does not have the right to coerce me. That's called stealing.

Oh, and U.S. bookstores? At first it seemed the big chains like Barnes and Noble, Books-a Million and Hastings were going to run the independent bookstores out of town. Some did run. Or, I should say, they changed.

Instead of suing the big stores to force them to be fair, one charming local bookstore simply changed their product line and added a restaurant. They are thriving better now than when they sold books.

And the other small bookstores? They are doing better than the chains by selling mostly used books at a much cheaper rate than the chains. I buy most of my books used now. So leave people alone, keep the government out and it's amazing what individual entrepreneurship can accomplish.

And France? I was there last December and I found loads of books cheap on outdoor racks. With my fellow book buyers I browsed and acquired quite a few books for a Euro a piece. So I assume the law is for new books not used books.

My stash that I brought back with me from Paris this past December.  They were about one Euro each.

Despite the book's length, I found Atlas Shrugged a worthwhile read.  It is good to learn other people's philosophies even if they don't completely coincide with one's own.

View all my reviews

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was a huge fan of Wagner because he loved Germanic and Norse folklore as well as early English legend as his good friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien did. Here is a link to Wagner's opera Parsifal based on the 13th century epic poem about an Arthurian Knight.  Wagner liked doing things on an "Uber" scale and the opera is four hours long, but you can enjoy part of the Prelude while reading my latest review.

The Pilgrim's RegressThe Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

C.S. Lewis is mostly known for his Narnia Chronicles. Some of us are also familiar with his Science Fiction Trilogy. Then there is the bulk of his work that fall under the genre apologetics.

I've read most of Lewis' work but I had not read the Pilgrim's Regress before. He wrote it shortly after he became a Christian and it is interesting in its insight into one man's conversion experience and also as a comparison to his later works.

Inspired by John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Lewis wrote his work as an allegory. It starts with a young man, John, who is living on a pleasant countryside with his parents.

As a young boy, he gets smacked for doing the wrong thing, such as shooting at birds or pulling flowers out of the garden, even though he really doesn't understand why this is bad. When John asks why these things are wrong he is told that the Steward says so.

He asks who the Steward is and is told the Steward is the man who makes the rules for the country.

John asks why. Because the Landlord set him to do it.

Who is the Landlord? The owner of all the country.

One day John's parents take him to see the Steward. He is in a large, grand, formidable building and stands behind a pulpit or Judge's Bench. The Steward is an affable old man who cheerfully waves them towards him, but when they get down to business, the Steward puts on a scary mask and pontificates about the "Rules" and how one must obey them or there will be dire, dire consequences.

John looks at a card with the rules on it that the Steward had given him.

"Half the rules seemed to forbid things he'd never heard of and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing and the number of rules was so enormous that he felt he never could remember them all."

Then the Steward asked if John had broken any of the rules. John is petrified. The Steward takes the mask off again and mutters, "Better tell a lie, old chap, better tell a lie. Easiest for all concerned." then "pops the mask back on again." So John denies breaking any of the rules.

Afterward the Steward takes off the mask, becomes his cheery self again and whispers down to John, "If I were you, I wouldn't worry too much about it."

Later John's Uncle George has notice to quit his farm. He has to see the Steward. John and his parents walk with George to see the Steward. All of them are wearing masks now, except George who is too upset to put his on. John, his parents and the Steward walk him to the edge of the Land up to the Landlord's castle. where he then had to walk on by himself. George is very upset but has no choice.

"Nobody ever saw him again.

'Well,' said the Steward, untying his mask as they turned homweard. 'We've all got to go when our times comes.'"

John is concerned about being turned out without any notice like George. He asks his mother if George might be put in the black hole.

"'How dare you say such a thing about your poor uncle? Of course he won't.'"

'But hasn't Uncle George broken all the rules?'

'Broken all the rules? Your Uncle George was a very good man.'

'You never told me that before,' said John.

That is the introduction to John and his journey across the Landlord's Land. I think most of us recognize the Church of England and what it had converted Christianity into by the time of C.S. Lewis, although it had been developing in that direction for some time. Namely, that God and His presence had been largely removed from worship and all that was left was ceremony and "rules" that the average citizen acknowledged one needed to follow in order to be "civilized."

I have heard the term lately of "Christian Atheists." These are people who claim they do not believe in God but believe that the rules provided by Christian belief are necessary for a society to flourish. That is what many churches have devolved into. "Be a nice person. Don't hurt anyone, but don't take any of it too seriously."

John is not satisfied with this because it does not speak to the deep longing in his being that wants something more than to simply be a "good person" and get along with others (Sesame Street, anyone?). So he embarks on a journey, like Pilgrim in Bunyan's story, and on the way he travels through several lands and meets many strange sorts of people.

Each country, of course, represents a segment of society present when Lewis wrote the story in 1931. First John finds sex and plenty of young girls to have sex with. He finds that the pleasure he experiences is short lived and simply doesn't reach to the bottom of his desire. He keeps seeking but never finds what he is looking for. Unfortunately for him, he finds that his sex partners proliferate and he has a miserable time escaping them.

This is meant to be taken symbolically. While it is easy enough to throw someone over after you're tired of them, a type of "spirit" of them stays with you. This is sometimes called emotional baggage but it also is something more profound.

From there he meets Mr. Halfway who presents True Love to him through his beautiful singing. Or at least John thinks so. It is actually quite shallow but sounds so beautiful it deceives him for sometime. He finally stays with Halfway's daughter only to find she is really just a sister of the other girls he was with.

My favorite place he visits is the Lost Generation, because I've just finished reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Lewis nails some of the pretensions of the Jazz Age. He describes them:

"They were all either young, or dressed up to look as if they were young. The girls had short hair and flat breasts and flat buttocks so that they looked like boys: but the boys had pale, egg-shaped faces and slender waists and big hips so that they looked like girls-except for a few of them who had long hair and beards.

'What are they so angry about?' whispered John.

'They are not angry, they are talking about Art'"

Lewis penetrates through the falsehood of the Jazz Babies, then those who like philosophy without spirit, the "rational" or scientific age. And also the Barbarism and Paganism that was looming overhead with the rise of Hitler though he does not explicitly name him.

In the end John travels all around the world until he ends up back where he started, however, he is not the same person thanks to the fact that he meets with Reason, a woman on a white horse, and Old Mother Kirk.

The conversations that John has with the people at each stopping point is illuminating to Lewis' own spiritual journey.

At one point John is told that his desires created a Landlord because he needed one to exist. Reason later tells him that the opposite is true. The Doubters are the ones who need the Landlord to not exist, hence their own logic is built on that premise.

In the end, John does find what he is looking for, which can be summed up in a teaser:

Science can try to explain how a tree came to be. But it cannot tell us why it is beautiful. Finally meeting the Landlord answers that question and also fulfills all of John's deepest longings, which is to be in intimate fellowship with Him.

The conversations Lewis writes between a Spiritual pilgrim and every argument against seeking the Landlord makes the book a valuable read.

View all my reviews