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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Manuscript Found in Accra; His Excellency; A Treacherous Paradise; Triumph; and Countdown

Paulo Coelho.  Manuscript Found in Accra.  ©2012   Read by Jeremy Irons.  This had a promising start but turned out to be a series of parables, sort of an ethics lesson.  I quit.  March 2014
Joseph J. Ellis.  His Excellency.  ©2004  Ellis acknowledges that there are many fine biographies of Washington and tells us that he will concentrate on Washington’s character.  My notes here are just the things Ellis mentioned that especially interested me.  Washington was hungry for land and acquired vast holdings in the west.  Only Lincoln and FDR faced crises as serious as those faced by Washington.  To start with, there was no “country,” only an idea.  In the Revolutionary War, Washington had hoped to win some large and decisive battles.  He never did until Yorktown, but he was successful in using the same strategy that Fabius used against Hannibal, skirmish and retreat and take advantage of the geography.  It’s easy to assume that winning was a close thing and that it couldn’t have been done without the French, but there was probably no way the British could have maintained a force large enough to subdue and hold the colonies over a long period in the face of a determined resistance.  Think Vietnam.  When Washington returned from the war, Mt. Vernon was overstocked with slaves and losing money every year.  He couldn’t sell them off because he didn’t want to break up families.   He never did solve this problem.  In the 1780s the Articles of Confederation just weren’t working, but there was great resistance to proposals for more centralization, just as there is today.  Washington played a critical role in finessing adoption of the Constitution, almost without saying a word.  It’s generally understood that the site of city of Washington was the result of a compromise, Hamilton’s agreement to Jefferson’s preferred site in return for Jefferson’s support of Hamilton’s bank, but actually there was a lot of horse trading involved.  Washington was heavily involved in the layout and architecture of the city and obsessed with the idea that there should be a great national university there.  Our two party system grew out of the hatred between Jefferson and Hamilton.  The words “no entangling alliances” are from Jefferson’s inaugural address, not Washington’s Farewell Address.  A last mistake by Washington was supporting Hamilton’s efforts to establish a standing army, because of the perceived threat of a French invasion.  It is Henry Lee’s eulogy that contains the words “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of the American people.”  I’m not sure that Ellis succeeded in telling us more about Washington’s character than other authors, but it is an enjoyable and informative read.  If I had met Washington face to face, I don’t think I would have liked him.  March 2014
Henning Mankell.  A Treacherous Paradise.  ©2011   Around 1900 when Hanna Renstrom is 17, she has to leave her home in far northern Sweden because her widowed mother Elin can no longer squeeze enough out of their small farm to feed both her and the two younger children.  She is taken in a sleigh by Jonathan Forsman, a lumber company owner on a journey of almost two weeks to a town where she has relatives.  When the relatives can’t be found, Forsman takes her in as a maid and later arranges a job for her as a cook on a ship he owns that is headed for Australia.  On the voyage she marries the third mate who promptly dies of a fever and is buried at sea.  When they get to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambigue), she jumps ship and takes a room at O Paraiso.  She thinks it’s a hotel but actually it’s a brothel.  From the beginning of her time in Lourenço Marques she is appalled at the whites’ treatment of the blacks and disturbed because the blacks refuse to recognize that she is not like the other whites.   In the brothel all the whores are African, and there is never any question of her joining them.  Instead she is courted by the brothel owner and eventually agrees to marry him.  When he dies, she finds herself a rich woman, the owner a very successful brothel and her late husband’s other holdings in South Africa.  She wants to sell the brothel and return to Sweden, but before she does that she tries to help a black woman who had stabbed her white husband.  Eventually the woman is murdered in her cell and Hanna leaves for Beira, Portuguese East Africa’s second city.  She goes there because she has promised the dead woman’s brother that she will find their parents and tell them about the woman’s death.  When she gets to Beira, the brother is there and she finds solace in his arms.  Mankell got his starting point for this story when an acquaintance told him that Lourenço Marques’s tax records for the early 1900s show that a Swedish woman owned a brothel there and paid a lot of taxes for some years.  Nothing else is known about her, but that was enough for Mankell to get started.  (Wallander seems to be retired).  March 2014
Jeremy Schaap.  Triumph.  ©2007  This is an excellent account of the running career of Jesse Owens and it significance in the context of the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany.  I think every famous sports writer I have heard of is quoted at some point in the book along with such luminaries as Westbrook Pegler.  The “Our Colored Boys” headlines quoted throughout make the skin crawl.  Some things from my notes: On the same day the Olympic trials were held on Randall’s Island, FDR was in New York to dedicate the Triborough Bridge.  FDR was there with a raft of Washington officials to make sure Robert Moses didn’t try to take credit for the bridge.  The US Olympic team sailed to Europe on the SS Manhattan..  Avery Brundage, AKA “Slavery Brundage,” and the other Olympic officials went first class;  the athletes were in third class and had no allowance for spending money then or later at the games and during the travel within Europe that they were required to do to raise money for the US Olympic Committee.  There was some closed circuit TV at the games.  Owens developed a friendship with Lutz Long, the German long jumping champion which lasted until the war and Lutz’s death.  In his last letter, Lutz asked Owens to find his son after the war and tell him what kind of man he had been, and Owens did as he was asked.  When Owens got back from the games, he couldn’t get a hotel room in NYC.  March 2014
Alan Weisman.  Countdown.  ©2013   In an earlier book, The World Without Us, which I reviewed Nov. 24, 2013, Weisman wrote about what the world would be like without people to overuse its resources.  In this book, people are back, too many people.  He says that over the long term the earth has resources to support about 2 billion people.  Right now we have 7 billion and we are headed for 9 billion by mid-century even with the decline in fertility we have seen in Europe, the US, Japan, China, Russia, Iran and elsewhere.  Weisman is well aware of the fortuitous relationship between fertility and developed country lifestyles as laid out by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler in their book, Abundance, The Future Is Better Than You Think, which I reviewed  Feb. 23, 2013, but says that the earth simply doesn’t have the resources to support the earth’s current population with anything approaching US or European levels of consumption.  We can’t depend on rising incomes and consumption levels to put a break on population and bring our number in line with the earth’s capacity to support us, because we have already overshot any reasonable possibility for balance between resources and population.  For example, the Green Revolution, which gave everyone hope, was only a temporary fix.  The basic ingredient was ammonia fertilizer, which is made with natural gas, a limited resource despite recent discoveries of new deposits and new methods to exploit them.  The Green Revolution was able to relieve world hunger and continues to do so, but further gains will depend on development of improved plant varieties, which are twenty or more years away.  Weisman is an indefatigable researcher and he puts all of this very serious stuff together in a way that is a pleasure to read.  There are lots of anecdotes along the way that he uses to make his points:  most of the birds that migrate between Africa and Eurasia pass through Israel and the Israeli military has had to develop procedures to prevent their aircraft from bringing down the birds and vice versa; to get an idea of what doubling means he mentions the piece of grain on the chessboard example, but has an even better one  -- if you fold a piece of paper into quarters and then repeat the process, after 42 folds, the thickness will be enough to reach the moon; to protect gorillas on a nature reserve in Uganda from human diseases, a conservationist started a successful birth control program in the villages nearby simply to limit population to a level where no one felt it necessary to expand into a nature reserve; in Niger an Imam declared that the purpose of life is to produce offspring.  March 2014

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