Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
I've always been a bit skittish of Mr. Stephenson. I love a big book, since I'm a fast reader, but his books aren't big, they're gargantuan. Very intimidating. Plus, he really writes about ideas, lots of them and very heavy, and, you know, you have to be in a very specific mood for that sort of thing. But a few weeks ago, during my weekend trip to Borders, I noticed a big pile of remaindered (read: cheap) Anathems, which was the biggest and most acclaimed sci-fi book of a few years ago. On a whim and the lure of a good deal on a book I kinda wanted to read anyway, I picked it up. And am I glad I did! Sooo good!
Like all stories, especially those of a speculative nature, Anathem starts with a "What if...": What if there was a world where academics were organized along monastic, cloistered lines, and then aliens suddenly appeared in orbit? Stephenson the proceeds to use the world built from answering that question to explore consciousness and culture and historical determinism and free will and faith. Elements of bildungsroman, thriller, and mystery aside, Anathem really is, in parts, more Platonic dialogue about the Big Questions, and I think quite deliberately, than it is a typical narrative. Heck, there is a large portion of the book that is an actual Symposium, not to mention several Socrates stand-ins.
The plot and the characters are very good, though, with plenty of twists and suspense. The friendship of the young monk-intellectuals at the center of the book are convincing, with lots of funny and believable banter that I recognize from my own circle. The requisite romantic relationship of the main character is less convincing. Frankly, I didn't get it at all, but it's really a rather minor and ignorable subplot. The main character, who is also the narrator, is sympathetic and relateable.
It can be a bit jarring when you first pick it up, because there is a whole bunch of vocabulary and worldbuilding that is just thrust at you (there is a convenient glossary in the back, which you will need), but you soon get into the rhythm of it, and infodumps are scattered throughout that eventually explain just about everything.
I must again stress that this is a BIG book, not just in length but in density. Even being the fast reader I am, it took about two weeks to get through. But if you're looking for a mind-bender that also entertains, you can't do much better than Anathem.
Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North by C.S. Manegold
A narrative of slavery in the North looked at through the microcosm of Ten Hills Farm, the seat first of Massachusetts founder John Winthrop and then the Ussher and Royall dynasties. Or, at least, that's what it's supposed to be. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot about slavery in here, but it seems like it takes her a while to really get into it in a substantive way. It reads for the first third more like a story about American colonial and then early Republic history in which there is slavery, not a story about slavery in the American colonial history and then early Republic, which is really not what the book is billed as. The later portions of the book are more in-line with expectations, but not before you begin to think the book was mistitled.
There are a few stylistic choices that detract from the book, in my opinion. First, and largely irrelevant unless it annoys you like it did me, Manegold has the habit of nicknaming her characters. Winthrop, for instance, is occasionally known as "the Puritan." Sometimes, it can take a moment to realize who she's even talking about. A more substantive and possibly promblematic choice is Manegold's, probably for "interest" to keep things from getting too dry, use of fictional narrative techniques. For instance, she describes what Ten Hills Farm looked like from the road that ran through it via the perspective of a nameless servant traveling to the coast from farther inland on an errand. There are also a lot of "surely" statements like "Surely he felt..." and "Maybe he told..." and "He must have..." and "He would have..." I personally don't care for this approach. There is always in a work of history -- other than the driest of dry academic monographs -- speculation and inference (hopefully careful, well-supported, and clearly labeled). The past is, as they say, another world, and no one knows everything, especially people's thoughts and feelings. Still, Manegold's method seems a bit... presumptuous somehow, and in several places just unnecessary, gilding the lily to gin up something or other. One can engagingly write about the setting without having to make up errand-running servants, and putting thoughts and feelings into a long-dead person's mouth with no real basis seems unfair and possibly misleading.
There are other more substantive criticisms as well. I thought the ending was... abrupt. She traces the owners and slaves of Ten Hills Farm to the Revolution, but afterwards is just very lightly brushed on. The end of slavery in Massachusetts and the North isn't really discussed much, either. A few pages about court cases and petering out is all there is. And, to be perfectly honest, I really didn't get much sense of what slavery in the North was actually like. She does touch on the fact that there is a lot that we don't actually know, because the slaves didn't leave much documentation, but I kind of think of that as a cop-out. How was it different or not different from the Southern slavery we're "familiar" with? What was the larger view of it beyond the owners and statutes? And though she makes it plain that there were very few slaves relative to the population of Massachusetts, the story she actually tells makes it sound like everyone had slaves.
At this point, one would probably think I hated the book, but I didn't at all. Manegold is an excellent writer, the characters are interesting, and it is an important subject worthy of interest and examination. The connections, economic, social, and familial, between the brutal, but rich, Caribbean sugar-producing islands and New England is a fascinating and unknown-to-me story (which we'll learn about and discuss more in the next book). I simply felt that there were a lot of areas where it failed to live up to its potential.
American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor
This ain't your father's "Pilgrims, Puritans, and Pocahontas" story of colonization. No, it's a wide-ranging overview of Spanish, French, Dutch, English, and Russian exploration and settlement of North America, from the Atlantic to Hawaii, from the Arctic Circle to the Caribbean, from prehistory to the 1820s, including many areas, such as Alaska and the Great Plains, not included in our standard conceptions of exploration and colonization. It also examines the cultural, political, and economic forces in Europe from the Middle Ages on that led to and shaped colonization and emigration patterns. Colonies were never done or governed in a vacuum: they were shaped by the rivalries and alliances of European politics and supported by a variety of European social and economic developments.
Though we often think of European/Native American contact as one of unremitting conflict and brutality and tragedy (it was all of those things), it was also much more than just that. The often complex interactions between Native Americans and colonists were seismic to both sides, not just economically and socially, but biologically. We all know about the massive epidemics that ravaged Native American populations, but not so much the ecological impact of the exchange of flora and fauna that took place. Even the remotest American wilderness today is very little like the wilderness that existed in the Pre-Columbian era due to the introduction of European livestock, weeds, pests, and crops. But, then, even that "wilderness" was often shaped by and adapted to anthropogenic activity, from the extinction of most large fauna following the Ice Age migrations to the controlled burning used by many native groups to encourage certain plants. America was neither virgin nor untouched from almost the minute humans, both Paleo-Indian and later Europeans, stepped on it.
And though the Native American peoples ultimately "lost," their story is not one of inevitable or universal exploitation and annihilation. Especially early on, settlers were at the mercy of Native American sufferance. Several times in the seventeenth century in both New Mexico and the British settlements, native peoples came close to permanently ending European settlement. At the same time and for long after, Native Americans cannily played the rival empires off one another, maximizing their negotiating advantages (their greater experience trapping and hunting valuable furs, creating buffer zones between the various empires) to use the goods procured in trade to improve their lives and forward their own political agendas. Trade brought with it dependence, however, for guns and gunpowder and metal tools. Yet for several centuries the two peoples were contentiously, grudgingly, deeply interdependent.
One of the book's greatest strengths is that Taylor is scrupulously fair and measured when dealing with all the people involved in the story of American settlement, purposefully challenging the many myths and biases held about this history with facts and nuance. With regards to Native Americans, he takes pains to show that they were neither Noble Savages, Passive Victims, Naive Innocents, Paleo-Hippy New Agers, nor Bloodthirsty Barbarians, but humans, with all the contradictions and nuances that entails. The Native Americans were a staggeringly diverse group of autonomous actors who each had their own cultures, languages, emnities, alliances, feuds, and ways of life. Many of the groups we know were actually quite late agglomerations of a variety of peoples forced together in the face of the disruptions brought by European diseases, technologies, and wars, sometimes decades or centuries before they had any substantial contact with the Europeans. Even older groups that kept their identity were often forced to migrate and transformed by these disruptions. European contact was like a huge boulder thrown into a pool, with ripples spreading in all directions, interfering in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
Slavery was almost as huge a part of the European colonization of America as Native American relations. But slavery wasn't just plopped down whole-cloth onto a virgin land; it was an institution that evolved over time and varied greatly geographically in its practice and theory. Greed and disregard for "inferior" peoples -- Indians and Africans -- is what drove it, and few people come off looking well in its long and sordid history. I find it particularly fascinating that no matter how they tried to justify and rationalize it, the white people who engineered this system knew it was wrong, though that knowledge was mostly buried far, far down. Their obsession with the notion of slave revolt and their outsized measures to prevent it would have given Freud a field day.
In connection with slavery, American Colonies (and also Ten Hills Farm) really opened my eyes to the centrality of the West Indies in the history of colonization. Its small islands had an enormous impact on the culture and economics of all other colonies and played an outsized role, due to their wealth, in the geopolitical strategies of the day. In some ways, the continental colonies were just addendums and after-thoughts to the Caribbean, where sugar-producing islands were much richer and more valuable to the European imperial powers. New England and the Middle Colonies prospered providing the mostly-monocultured, poorly resourced islands with supplies of livestock, lumber, and such, and their merchants grew rich trading those supplies, slaves, rum, sugar, and other goods in the infamous Triangular Trade that included the brutal Middle Passage. The Carolinas practically transported West Indian plantation culture to the mainland. The elites of the colonies of the Chesapeake put us on the road to the racial dynamics we're still dealing with today, racializing black slavery in order to divide the poor whites and the free and enslaved blacks from their shared economic and class interests.
"Brutal" is definitely a word that is central to this story. Slavery, of course, was incredibly brutal. The punishments for even small infractions were horrific to deter rebellion and instill fear, the work backbreaking, the dislocation jarring. Life was cheap, literally. In the West Indies black populations were only sustained by the continued importation of new slaves because the rate of "natural increase" was so low. Due to poor nutrition and overwork, most slave women bore stillborns or weak children that didn't survive long. Some killed their children at birth so as not to inflict a life of bondage on them. Yet even the emigration of free people and life in a "new" land was harsh beyond comprehension to modern Americans. The number of people who died from starvation, disease, and war is incredible. This was not an easy journey, but one fraught with peril from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Only the foolish, and quite often soon-dead, did this for fun or adventure. As Taylor emphasizes, it was only when the pull of opportunity, especially in land, and the push of economic, religious, and/or political pressures in Europe combined did anyone bother to go to such dangerous lengths. One could prosper in a way most simply couldn't in Europe, and many did, with land and property and greater health and nutrition, but one could also die horrifically in a strange land.
What's so wonderful about this book is its writing. Taylor is incredibly good at condensing, synthesizing, and transmitting a huge, complicated, and contentious scholarship into eminently readable narrative. This is, simply, a staggering work, for its erudition, readability, and incredible concision, at a mere 490-some pages covering thousands of years and thousands of miles. The amount of material Taylor digested (included in the extensive Bibliography) is mind-boggling, especially when one considers the readability of the result. I can't imagine a one-volume overview such as this being better. Well worth your time and highly recommended for anyone interested in early American history.
There are still a few more books I know I want to read that I'll probably talk about in a later post, but for now I think these three are more than enough for you guys to chew on.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
If I may, then, I'd like to introduce two of my favorite charities. Gay Men's Health Crisis is an AIDS charity, one of the first on the scene and still one of the most prominent, providing free testing, counseling, prevention education, advocacy, and other support services, including free meals. Despite its name, it isn't just for gay men, but for all HIV/AIDS sufferers. The Ali Forney Center is a center for homeless LGBT youth. I'm incredibly lucky to have had a supportive family, but many, especially gay, youth aren't. And if you're just incredibly shallow, the director, Carl Siciliano is TOTALLY HOT.
Please consider donating to both of these worthy endeavors. And lest I not practice what I preach, I just donated to both.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Friday, June 11, 2010
I really have never gotten the American obsession for coming up with reasons why we supposedly don’t like soccer (even though a lot of people do, but they're Latino immigrants and hoity-toity liberal hipster eleeeeeeeeeets or something, so they don't count). It’s always been rather simple to my mind: we have baseball and football, and they take up the space that soccer does in other countries. A country can only care about so many sports and teams! Crazy theory, huh? Or maybe it has a lot to do with the very savvy marketing and promotion the sports associations for football, baseball, and basketball have done for several decades now. No soccer association has had the same kind of money or genius to do the same for their sport. Throw a couple billion dollars of marketing over the course of a number of years, and I'm sure the sport would take off.
But instead of anyone pointing out such logical, nuanced theories, it becomes some cockamamie thing about National Character and how Europeans are just a bunch of fruity wine-drinkers who sit around in berets in a socialism-fueled fog of ennui, and it's popular with those damn browns who are taking our jerbs, or some such bullshit.
On the American side, I wish people would get it through their thick skulls that you can just not like something without having to sneer at the rest of the world for doing so! Just because the French like something (though, actually, aren’t they more into rugby?) doesn’t make it bad!
Can't we all just agree to disagree? You don't have to watch the World Cup if you don't want to! Or you can go crazy and shout "Ole, ole, ole!" all the time! Just, everyone, stop whining and complaining and fighting about something that, you know, is supposed to be fun and entertaining.
Anyway, good luck to all the teams!
Yes, the flesh is often "weak," but it is even more amazing. Just a cursory knowledge of biology is enough to make one marvel at the incredible biochemical complexity and resiliency of the human organism, not to mention every other living thing on the planet. Even without a knowledge of biology, just a simple examination of otherwise taken-for-granted processes like breathing, walking, sleeping, hell, even excreting is enough to blow your mind. Life is, in short, incredible. How can you not celebrate that, hold it in wonder and awe? It is no less sublime than any soul-stuff that may or may not exist. How can any religion, any ideology, any "moral" nag see it as dirty or contemptible?
I literally sometimes almost weep at, of all things, porn. To see two (or more) perfect bodies naked in all their glory be exquisitely beautiful. It isn't shameful or wrong: it is Life in its purest form, the basic drive for communion and synthesis that lies within all bodies.