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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Autobiography of Mark Twain; Faust; How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too); The First Eagle; and Sweet Tooth

Samuel Clemens.   Autobiography of Mark Twain , Vol. 1.  ©2001  Mark Twain had his own ideas about what an autobiography should be.  First of all it shouldn’t be published for at least 100 years so that the author can be honest about himself and avoid injuring others.  It shouldn’t proceed in any particular order, but instead should reflect what the author is thinking at any given time.  It should be a portrait gallery of his contemporaries.   He takes his own advice, and it is a delight to follow him as he rambles down the corridors of his own life.  He knew everyone and went everywhere.  The person who comes out best in all this is Ulysses S. Grant, whom he knew well and helped financially by publishing his memoirs.  He also has admiring words for Henry Rogers of Standard Oil, who was his close friend in later life.  After Clemens met and was profoundly impressed by Helen Keller, he recommended her to Rogers who paid for her education at Radcliffe.  Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t fare so well.  A woman named Morris came to the White House uninvited, and Roosevelt’s secretary had her thrown out, bodily, and then the police manhandled her.  It became known in the press as “the Morris incident” and Clemens comes back to it at least twice.  I made notes of a few things that especially interested me.  An actress named Brown (I missed the first name) seems to have been a 19th C version of Kim Kardasian, famous for being famous.  The family doctor in Florida, Missouri where he started life was paid by the year.  About slavery he said he preferred a world where a mother could own her own child.  In Hartford he was ostracized for voting for Cleveland.  It seems like most of the funny things that have ever been said were said first by Mark Twain, but Clemens was more than a humorist.  He was a modern man with modern ideas.  He was always rational, and perhaps it is that rationality that was the secret of his humor.  The autobiography is a mishmash, just as he intended, and Grover Gardner’s reading makes you feel like Twain is right there with you.  I just learned that Vol. II has been published.  I can hardly wait.  October 2013
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  Faust.  ©2011  This is a four disk dramatization of the play.  It didn’t work for me, and I quit after the first disk.  October 2013
David P. Goldman.  How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too).  ©2011   Goldman’s main thesis is that as secularism replaces religion, fertility declines.  When women become literate, fertility declines.  Soon there are too many old people and not enough young people.  Eventually civilizations collapse.  He has spent a lot of time with population figures and predicts doom for many civilizations.  In less than a century there will be no Poles or Iranians.  The US will be fine because we have lots of evangelicals and Catholics and fertility will not drop below the replacement rate.  In a few decades, the Israelis, who are also rather fecund, will be able to field a larger army than the Germans and soon after that the Germans will die out. So will the Russians and the Turks and the Japanese.  The whole Muslim world will soon collapse because of the drastic rates of fertility decline, but they will be dangerous as they lash out in their death throes.  Goldman dashes back and forth through history to try to support his generalizations and along the way mentions just about every historical figure I’ve ever heard of (and none that I haven’t).  Towards the end he tries to make the case that the US should never negotiate and should use its power to get what it wants.  It all started with the Cuban missile crisis when we gave away too much. He really dislikes Muslims and gives plenty of good reasons why he does, but he doesn’t seem to have thought of trying to get along with them.  Goldman seems unaware of the mountains of studies that worry about over population outstripping the earth’s resources.  It’s true that Japan is struggling with the problem of an aging population and many other developed countries will be too in the near future, but it seems naive to think that human societies can’t work through this problem.  I think I’m close to the right figures if I say that in the US in the early 19th  C, 90% of the population was engaged in agriculture and today it’s less than 3%  Changes in productivity in many non agricultural sectors have experienced similar gains.  Since we can’t plan on a new green revolution every decade, maybe it would be a good thing if the earth had a few less people.  You can skip this book.  October 2013
Tony Hillerman.  The First Eagle.   ©1998   Someday I’ll have to try to figure the chronology of the Hillerman novels.  In this one Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn end up working together again, but Leaphorn has been retired for a while and Chee is only beginning his relationship with Bernice.  That doesn’t add up.  In any event, Leaphorn is hired by a wealthy widow to find her daughter, a scientist who has been working on hantavirus and bubonic plague, both of which are endemic in parts of Arizona.  Meanwhile Chee has arrested a young Hopi for the murder of a colleague in the Navaho tribal Police.  The two cases come together, the daughter is found, and so is the real killer.  October 2013
Ian McEwan.  Sweet Tooth.  ©2012  From page one you know you are in the hands of a great writer.  The book is about a young woman recently graduated from Cambridge named Serena Frome.  She is hired by MI5 and tasked with “running” one of the writers in operation Sweet Tooth, a project to give financial support clandestinely to young writers whose views coincide with those of the British government.  Serena’s target is Tom Haley, who has published some short stories and some learned articles which drew on academic work he had done in international affairs and plans to write a novel.  Serena recruits Tom and then sleeps with him and they fall in love.  There’s no counter espionage in this one; there’s only the question of whether Serena should disobey her instructions and tell Tom where she worked and what would happen if she did or didn’t.  It’s a love story, or maybe two love stories, and a story about writing.  McEwan summarizes three of the stories written by Haley.  I was left wondering if the stories were something McEwan had in a drawer and never got around to finishing.  October 2013

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