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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Waiting for Sunrise; American Passage: The History of Ellis Island; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; The Men Who Lost America, British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire; and Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans

William Boyd.  Waiting for Sunrise.  © 2012  The book opens in Vienna just before WW I with Lysander Rieff, a British actor, seeing a Freudian psychiatrist in hope of a cure for a sexual dysfunction.  He meets Hetty, a patient of the same shrink, and they have some very satisfactory sex.  He’s cured.  Lysander writes his fiancée back in London and breaks off their engagement.  Unfortunately Hetty lives with a very unpleasant and very influential Austrian lover.  When Hetty turns up pregnant, the lover insists she charge Lysander with rape.  He ends up in the slammer.  The British secret service bails him out and helps him skip.  He ends up owing them 10 thousand pounds for the bail plus expenses.  After war breaks out, the service comes to collect, that is to forgive the debt if he will do a little job for them in Switzerland.  He turns out to be a pretty clever spy.  This was one of those novels where the plot is pretty interesting, but somehow it’s hard to relate to the main character.  November 2014
Vincent Cannato.  American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.  ©  2011   I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this.  I’m glad I did.  The issues haven’t changed much in 125 years, and we are still fighting the same policy battles we fought 125 years ago.  From 1855 to 1890, Castle Garden on the Battery at the tip of Manhattan was the official processing center for immigrants arriving in New York.  Unfortunately the immigrants processed there were at the mercy of runners, who grabbed their bags and led them to overpriced boarding houses, where they could be fleeced of whatever they had left after paying their passage and their entry fee.  It was closed down in 1890, and Ellis Island was opened in 1892.  For the interim, immigrants were processed at the Barge Office on the Battery.  Ellis Island was closed down as an immigration center in 1954 and had a rather checkered history after that until it finally became a national park.  The narrative follows the careers of the several directors and the stories of some of the immigrants.  Most interesting to me were the attitudes of the politicians in Washington and the immigration officials on the island.  Some were very liberal and others sounded like Fox News.  Sanitary conditions weren’t very good at Ellis, including during the rather cruel medical exams, the eye exams in particular.  Inevitably every imaginable theory about the superiority of some races over others was expressed and sometimes acted upon.  The word “moron” was coined on the island.  Twelve million immigrants passed through the halls of Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. There were several other entry points for immigrants, but Ellis Island seems to be a symbol for them all.  I was interested learn that Fiorello LaGuardia was an inspector there for three years while he went to law school at night.  He was trilingual in English, Italian and Croatian.  November 2014
Haruki Murakami.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  © 2014   After reading Murakami’s 1Q84, I didn’t know what to expect when I started this.  This time there was only one moon and one world.  A Japanese engineer, age 36, has recovered physically but not psychologically from the sudden and total rejection of the peer group with whom he had been best friends all through high school.  He’s called colorless, because he was the only one in this group of five who didn’t have a name that meant a color.  The others were two boys named Aoi and Aka, red and  blue, and two girls, Kuro and Shiro, black and white.  Tsukuru’s name means maker.  They grew up in Nagoya and Tsukuru was the only one who went away to college.  He studied engineering in Tokyo and lived in a condo provided by his well to do father.  When he went home for a visit in his sophomore year, he could not get in touch with any of the four.  Finally he was able to talk to one of the boys, who told him never to call any of them again.  When he asked why, the boy said: “You know why,” and hung up.  He was so devastated at the loss of his friends, his only friends, that he almost died.  After five months of grieving, he started to recover his health and get on with his life, but, with one exception, he was never able to develop new friendships, and the one friendship lasted only 8 months.  Finally Tsukuru meets a woman who interests him.  She recognizes that he has a problem that he must solve before he gets on with his life and his relationship with her.  She insists that he talk to his former friends in Nagoya and try to find out what actually happened.  He does, and that’s what the novel is about.  Murakami drills deep into the psyches of his characters, and  as we learn about their inner lives we learn a lot about what makes Japanese different from us and also how much we share with them in our inner selves.  Murakami often digresses to examine some arcane subject like the history of people with six fingers or the ins and outs of the construction of railroad stations, and he never fails to tie these into the main line of his narrative to heighten our understanding of where he is taking us.  I’m not sure reading this was a pleasure, but it was certainly fascinating, and I’m glad I read it. November 2014
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.  The Men Who Lost America, British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire.  © 2013  Ten biographic sketches of British leaders tell the story of the American Revolution as seen from London.  The reader goes back and forth in time as the author moves ahead from one sketch to another.  Instead of confusing things, it seems to bring greater clarity to the narrative – sort of like listening to Bolero.  The subjects of the sketches are:  George III –“the driving force behind the war;” Prime Minister Lord North; General Sir William Howe; his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe; General John Burgoyne; Lord George Germain, First Viscount Sackville and Secretary of State for America; Sir Henry Clinton; Lord Cornwallis; Admiral Sir George Rodney; and John Montague, Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty.  I knew nothing of Lord North and his story turned out to be the most interesting, particularly his interaction with George III.  The king was all in for winning the war outright and threatened to abdicate after Yorktown rather than accept defeat.  North recognized early on that the war was unwinnable and repeatedly tried to resign.  The king would not allow it.  From Lord North’s sketch I learned something I didn’t know about the tea tax.  It was accompanied by the withdrawal of an export tax and would have made tea cheaper in the colonies.  Its purpose was to establish the Crowns’ right to tax the colonies.  Americans’ rejection of the tea tax led to the coercive acts (Intolerable Acts) of 1774.  The Americans blamed North and were not open to his efforts in 1775 to abolish the taxes, if the American would agree to tax themselves and make some contribution to the cost of administering the colonies.   The last two bios were also of particular interest, because they cover the naval war in the Caribbean and the manning and supply problems the navy experienced during the war.  I wish Robert McNamara had been able to read this book before he committed us to all out war in Vietnam.  I was amazed at how similar the situation was, a war unwinnable by a great power engaged by an ill-equipped but determined indigenous population.  Now I’m wondering if we aren’t facing the same situation in Syria and Afghanistan.  November 2014
Simon Winchester.  Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans.  © 1999   This seems to be part travelogue and part reporting on the horrors of the breakup of Yugoslavia.  Winchester first visited the Balkans in the early 70s.  He was driving his aging Volvo from London to India for an assignment there.  He recalls stopping for lunch in a beautiful meadow.  When he returned in 1999, he found that the meadow had been the site of a massacre of thousands.   He started his 1999 venture into the Balkans in Vienna, where he got special permission to see the head of the Grand Vizier, whom the Sultan had had strangled after he led Ottoman forces to defeat by Jan Sobieski and others before the walls of Vienna in 1689.  As he moves on by train he wonders if the broken topography was a factor in the separateness and strife that characterizes the Balkans.  They’re all Slavs, but some are Muslims, some are Orthodox Catholics and some are Roman Catholics.  They can live together in peace for years and then suddenly they all hate each other.  One of the flash points was the Krajina, a crescent shaped territory in Croatia.  In the 17th C it was mostly unoccupied, and the Hapsburgs moved about 30,000 Serbs into the area as a barrier against the Turks.   In 1995 the Croats systematically massacred the Serbs there and forced as many as 100,000 to flee.  Winchester visited Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.  He entered Kosovo with British KFOR forces in 1999.  The Serbs did not leave willingly. Virtually all of the houses in Muslim areas were destroyed and the abandoned Serb houses were untouched.  It was a case of ethnic hatred and economic envy.  The rich Muslims were attacked first, then everyone else.  From Kosovo he drove on to Sophia.  He makes it sound like a nice place – maybe he was relieved after experiencing the horrors of the former Yugoslavia -- and follows with a brief sketch on the Bulgarians.  Their three products are roses of attar, horse radish and yogurt, which they invented.  He didn’t mention their long wine list until he described a dinner he had there.  They are the origin of the word “bugger,” from the name of an 11th C sect known for infamous practices.  At one time Bulgarians  were known as the nicest people in Europe, but that reputation was somewhat sullied by Bulgaria’s notorious secret service, which sent a Turk to try to kill John Paul II and another assassin to poison a BBC employee by jabbing his leg with an umbrella tipped with ricin.  Winchester went on to Istanbul, where an engineer friend let him walk across the Bosphorus on a cable strung as a start on a new bridge.  He claims to be the first person to walk across.  That may be so on that particular bridge but Darius had a pontoon bridge built sometime before 485 BCE and then there’s the modern suspension bridge dedicated in 1973. November 2014

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