Current Events

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Social Animal; Anansi Boys; In the Garden of the Beasts; and Angela’s Ashes

David Brooks.  The Social Animal.   It might be misleading to say this book got mixed reviews, without adding that some reviewers loved it, and some really hated it.  I pulled it off the shelf at the library because Brooks is the author, but as I started to read it, it was hard to believe that it was the same David Brooks who writes for the New York Times.  He invents two characters, Harold and Erica, as vehicles for describing how our unconscious and conscious minds develop and change through a lifetime.  I thought this was O.K., but I was turned off when he invented a Democratic president, so that Erica could be on his staff.  His analysis of the stages of Harold and Erica’s development over lifetimes of more than 70 years is all done within the values of this century, which I also thought was O.K., because he makes no pretense that they are real people.  He simply uses them as reference points to discuss current research on how the mind works.  Early in the book, he makes a point about poverty that interested me.  Numerous studies have tried to determine which elements of poverty cause lower IQ’s.  The answer is “all of them,” because no one has succeeded in isolating individual elements as being more significant.  The basic theme of the book is the division of labor between the unconscious and the conscious mind.  He says the unconscious mind is better equipped to solve really complex problems involving ambiguity and multiple variables and that it is the development of the unconscious mind in humans that is the more important factor in differentiating us from other animals.  The book is a potpourri of ideas and anecdotes, but it held my interest, and I can recommend it – with some slight reservation.  May 2013

Neil Gaiman.  Anansi Boys.   Fat Charlie, who hasn’t been fat since he was 14 but can’t escape the nickname, is a bookkeeper for a talent agency in London headed by Graham Coats.  At his father’s funeral in Florida, one of the old neighbor ladies from his youth suggests he get in touch with his brother.  Fat Charlie didn’t know he had a brother, and when he asks her how to get in touch with him, she says “Ask a spider.”  It’s ridiculous, but when he gets back to London he asks a spider and the next day his brother, named Spider, shows up.  Fat Charlie’s father, Mr. Nancy, was the spider god Anansi, and Spider has inherited some of his powers.  Spider impersonates Charlie and gets him in trouble at work and steals his fiancee, Rosie.  Fat Charlie asks the old ladies in Florida how to make Spider go away and that opens up a whole new set of problems involving West African myths and witchcraft carried to a Caribbean island and then on to Florida.  Meanwhile Coats, already worried because Spider, impersonating Fat Charlie, has uncovered certain accounting irregularities, murders one of his clients who has had the temerity to ask where her royalties are, and departs for the island of St. Andrew in the Caribbean, where he has stashed the millions he has embezzled from his clients and established an alternate identity.  Soon the entire cast of characters, including the ghost of the murdered woman, shows up on the island for one reason or another, and everything works out for everyone except Coats.  Fantasy may not be your thing but give this a try.  April 2013

Erik Larson.  In the Garden of the Beasts.   In 1933 FDR appointed Chicago University professor of history William Dodd as ambassador to Germany.  Dodd served until 1937, when his growing revulsion at the monstrousness of Hitler’s regime got him into trouble with the Nazis, who declared him persona non grata; with the “Pretty Good Club,” which ran the State Department and wanted to get along with Hitler and collect the debt from WW I; and with the isolationists, who wanted no part in European affairs.  Dodd was far from perfect and certainly was not ahead of his time in rejecting anti-Semitism, but he was a down to earth Jeffersonian Democrat of modest financial means, who tried his best to represent American values and express dismay at the excesses of the Nazis, even when he had not been instructed to do so.  After his return to the US from his assignment in January 1938, he became a leader in efforts to alert the American public to the growing threat in Germany and made speeches all over the US until his death in 1940.  This is a fascinating story all the way through.  Of particular interest is the description of the events of June 30, 1934, when Hitler murdered his SA colleagues.  Larson spends a lot of time on the activities of Dodd’ daughter, Martha, and could almost have made this into a separate biography.  Martha was 24 when she got to Berlin and in the process of getting divorced from her first husband.  To say she was promiscuous would be an understatement.  Among her conquests were Rudolph Diels, head of the Gestapo in 1933-34, and Boris Vinogradov, First Secretary at the Soviet Embassy and an NKVD agent.  Martha was initially impressed with the Nazis and then moved toward the Soviets in her sympathies.  They tried to recruit her, but it’s not clear to me if they succeeded.  She did get in trouble with the McCarthy in the 1950s and had to live out her life in Prague, which she came to hate.  May 2013  
Frank McCourt.  Angela’s Ashes.   This is McCourt’s autobiography from his first memories in Brooklyn at age 3 or 4 to his return to the US from Ireland when he was 18.  It’s a story of poverty, ignorance, disease and child mortality, dishonesty, alcoholism, infidelity and thought control by Jansenist trained Irish priests.  When McCourt was about 7 the family moved back to Ireland in hope of a better life.  McCourt’s father couldn’t hold a job in Brooklyn and did no better in Ireland.  He would drink up his week’s pay Friday night and fail to show up for work on Saturday morning, which always got him fired.  The family lived on money from the dole, when Angela, the mother, could get it before her husband drank it up, and on donations from the St. Vincent DePauw Society.  I guess McCourt thought his readers would want to know about his obsession with masturbation, but I don’t think it added anything except to bring out the church’s obsession with sex.  His loss of virginity to a girl who died of consumption was more interesting.  McCourt saved enough money to book passage back to the US by working at all sorts of jobs, including writing threatening letters for a loan shark, and by stealing whatever he could.  The book was a miserable experience, but it certainly renewed my interest in alleviating poverty.  As I read, I tried to recall what I learned from Michael Harrington’s The Other America, but after almost 60 years, I couldn’t come up with any specifics.  Time for a trip to the attic.  April 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment